Spirit; Or, the Princess of Bois Dormant
Getting to Know You: Stories
The Ghost in Love
The City's End
The Wreck of the Godspeed
The Gone-Away World
City at the End of Time
The Word of God
The Enchantress of Florence
The Dreaming Void

July 07, 2008
Excessive Candour
Cosmos Coupons

By John Clute
For the occasional visitor to the Pacific Rim, there is something that feels like something like the end of time about Seattle, certainly if one arrives at night. The darkness is almost tropical, but the land is northern. The mountains hide the city until the hidden valley comes suddenly into view, buildings and towers and overpasses strewn here and there around invading thrusts of ocean like props left over from a game played by godlings, who told it to exist and then forgot to stay.

It is a city which could last forever, or fall into the sea: half-submerged in rain and tide, ad hoc, clannish, casual, salty, full of people who moved there—like those who moved to California a few decades earlier—in the hope that they might be stories to tell, that Seattle might be a game to win. Because it is full of the story of Americans squatting on the edge of things, it is a good city for Greg Bear to use in an attempt—not entirely successful—to give a local habitation to those parts of City at the End of Time which are not set 100 trillion years into the future, in another city, where the story of the universe is about to end.

It would be good to be able at this point to describe in reasonable detail what this novel is about, but the task is pretty well impossible. It is certainly easy enough to say that there are two poles to the tale, a more or less contemporary Seattle caught in time storms and reality shift, and the beleaguered city-world of Kalpa all those trillions of years up the line, though we would be wise not to assume that this is the absolutely the last city at the end of time to which the title refers, because it isn't. That much is easy. But it gets very sticky from this point on.

What is intermittently rather extraordinarily thrilling about the book is at the same time its downfall, a downfall averted frequently by the skin of the teeth of Bear, but which still lurks beneath the long text, threatening to deaden the tale. What thrills is a sense that there is so much about the entire universe that must be told in these pages that long stretches of text simply have to read like excerpts from The Outline of Everything, synopsis wrought to the uttermost, a kind of elated merciless telegraphic explanation high that carries one away; what lurks beneath the text, clogging and washboarding the High Road of the tale, is a failure of pacing, points where the sensorium needs to settle for a breath. Too much of the human part of the tale is force-fed us at a rate we cannot really swallow. City at the End of Time chokes the reader with speed.

Oddly, however, this chewing the sap out of story is in a way exactly what the novel is about. One hundred trillion years hence, the last city of Kalpa has become a Last Redoubt—it is clear Bear wants us to recognize an homage to William Hope Hodgson's The Night Lands (1910)—under terminal threat from an ultimate principle of disorder and lifeless ashen parody of all that lives called Typhon, simultaneously a kind of god and a kind of quasi-animate principle of destruction whose only "desire" is to transform the entire expanse and breath of the universe into a state of incoherence beyond repair: because Typhon cannot tolerate being told. Nor can he/it tolerate having been told: his Despite extends from the beginning to the end of time, for everything must corrode into ash for him to escape the dreadful coherence of anything at all. The entire universe, whose last live text is Kalpa, is a story which scalds him/it.

In the end, Typhon's total refusal to be told, which is to say to be observed, derives from the underlying principle of creation Bear adheres to in his tale: that the universe is created through being observed, that observation or telling or story or text or Word precedes the thing told. "Dark matter is stuff waiting to happen." The universe is the story of the universe. The principle of order of the made universe is how it is told. The universe is a Book.

Hearing the song of the City

This is all pretty abstract, but then so is City at the End of Time. It is cosmological SF without a net. Entities at the end of time—unsurprisingly, given the cosmological structure of the tale the chief of these is a noötic multi-phasic entity known as Polybiblios or the Librarian—have for trillions of years been attempting to create a backstory which will counteract the ravening entropy of Typhon in the nick of time.

This brings us to Seattle, where we meet, but do not really get to know very well, three "fate-shifters," footloose drifters stuck in the surreal eddies of modern urban life in Seattle on the rim of the continent. Their names are Jack, Ginny and Daniel. The first two are foredoomed (we figure, and after 500 pages we are proved to be right) to replicate at the end of time a joining both metaphysical and sexual with Jebrassy and Tiadba, two figures created at the end of time to actualize them; Daniel, for his part, will have a task more godlike to manifest.

Each of the three carries a "sum-runner," stones which the female incarnation of Story at the end of time, whose name is Ishanaxade, has asked Polybiblios to imbrue with the "fragmented Babels"—which represent not incoherence but Borgesian libraries that do not end—and to "send them back to course forward from the beginning of time, whispering to each other, and connecting all who touched them." So the three shifters in Seattle, who have for aeons danced the reality streams through eras and parallel worlds and in the flesh of unknown victims, carry with them unimaginably dense interweavings of story. They bear the Book of the world.

They are therefore utterly deadly to the Lord of Misrule at the end of time, in theory. They manifest the fight-back of the universe at its last breath, but if only they can get there in time to give the kiss of life. As they are ignorant of their role, and as a genuinely confusing array of Gothic villains and villainesses has been assigned—by figures we never meet but who are para-entropical God-Likes—to hunt them down before they can migrate to Kalpa, there is a lot of story to tell. Some of it is vivid in spurts; Seattle itself doesn't seem to much more versimilitude than Bear has time to afford it, and several of the scenes set there, before an apocalyptic storm cavitates the city into spasms of dying story, give off some hue and savor. The flight of the three toward the end of time gets a touch Frodo-in-Mordor at places, but this only makes us want them to get to Kalpa faster.

Kalpa itself, however, owes rather too much to Arthur C. Clarke's Diaspar, peplum but bloodless, as featured in The City and the Stars (1956) and its predecessors, and the proliferation of entities becomes at points unconsciously, I think, comical (nor was I much impressed by the city beyond the city at the end of time, which became very wearisome to reach). Because Bear is in such a rush to get everything told and parallaxed, and because he has no real genius at depicting the thingness of flesh, he does not give Kalpa and its denizens much room to breathe; and the air gets very thin. This failure to worry about the feel of venue makes too much of the book too hard to remember from one moment to the next. The problem here may be an illusion of control: a sense that for Bear to describe something cogently is the same thing as to describe it utterly. There hardly any moments in City at the End of Time that are not cogent. But that is not the same as uttering them.

So it is hard to hear the song of the book; at the same time the song is there. There are moments that a cognitive binding of thought and story generates insights that are hard to catch, but precious to attempt to grasp, and the reason for reading the book sings through. When, for instance, almost so casually put we miss it completely, we read that "Observers are like tiny muses," the White Goddess breathes down the back of our neck. A novel could foliate from that one phrase. It is an intensity of telling that comes often to this book, but passes too swiftly for us to grasp its hem. And when Bear speaks of "the joy of matter" the ground shifts again, and we think we see what gives Bear joy—I'd define it as an elated intuition that to make sense is to make world. Fortunately, just often enough, City at the End of Time lets us in on that that joy.

John Clute is a writer, editor and critic. His first novel in 25 years, Appleseed, was a New York Times Notable Book for 2002. He co-edited The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and wrote Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, all Hugo Award winners. His criticism and reviews have appeared in various journals in the UK and America. Much of this material has been collected in Strokes: Reviews and Essays 1966-1986, Look at the Evidence: Reviews and Essays and Scores: Reviews 1993-2003, which includes most of the first 75 "Excessive Candour" columns, and other pieces. Canary Fever: Reviews, which is due later this year, will contain most of the next 70 or so "Excessive Candour" columns, plus other work. The Darkening Garden: a Short Lexicon of Horror appeared in 2006; he is working on a much enlarged third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, due to go online in late 2009 or so.