Five-Sevenths A Saviour

Here in the World, however, silence was incorrectly parsed as null and would not do. — The Pains

The Pains, John Sundman’s third novel, continues an experimental jag started with Cheap Complex Devices. There is an experimentation with media – it’s illustrated by Cheeseburger Brown. There is an experimentation with setting – a monastic SF alternate history sequel to 1984 not being obvious to most. This is rarely a bad thing in SF, though, and a protaganist both electrical engineer and monk does seem a particularly Sundmanite choice. That given, the choice of a fairly straight narrative was probably wise; there is not so much of the stylistic trickiness of CCD here, at least on the surface. It’s a successful experiment, for the most part. Part of the excitement of experiments is their potential for failure (and contradicting a hypothesis is itself an important result), but this book is very much an “aha, neat” rather than “seemed like a good idea” or “where are my eyebrows”.

The Pains has a real Philip K. Dick-ian quality, an intoxicating blend of readability and the everyday weirdness of an unstable reality. It’s a short book, and to me it felt too short. It does feel short the way many good books feel too short – you wish you could spend more time with them. But it also feels amputated, specifically at the end. Abbreviated by force. Spoilers follow.

Sundman is not averse to formal structures even in seemingly digestible narratives. He’s commented in other forums that in Acts of the Apostles, on the surface a Tom Clancy-style thriller, a key scene between the Nick Aubrey and Monty Meekman quite strictly follows the form of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert. I wonder if there is another formal device being used in The Pains. Given the parallel Christian, indeed Catholic, elements, I was reminded of the Stations of the Cross. Consider, in part:

  • 1. Norman Lux first experiences the pains, and has a disturbing audience with the abbott. Jesus is condemned to death.
  • 2. Xristi is given her letter of reassignment. Jesus is given his cross.
  • 3. Norman first meets the Eagle. Jesus falls the first time.
  • 6. Xristi Friedman meets and helps Norman Lux. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.
  • 7. Norman’s second meeting with the Eagle. Jesus falls the second time.

The Pains has ten chapters. There are fourteen stations of the cross.

I know it’s easy to OD on analysis, the whole Baconian thing. Perhaps it wasn’t a deliberate strategy, or there was a different model, especially given screen time is mostly split between Norman and Xristi, rather than focused intently on one of them. Norman has time for redemption; the stations of the cross end in Jesus’ tomb.

On the other hand, the Christian mythos is potent stuff, with extensively documented and long lasting effects. Combining it with Dick Cheney’s frozen head should produce a highly reactive sublimate. These intertwinings might just be another side effect of Sundman’s experimental theology.

“I have made a machine for exploring chaos. An analogue computer. To study strange attractors and fractal geometries of the soul.”

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