I really, really would like to be able to recommend John Twelve Hawks’ third book in his Traveler series, The Golden City. I wanted very much to enjoy the book. I hoped that the book would make some kind of sense. But I haven’t enjoyed the book, it doesn’t make sense, and I can’t recommend it.
When I came across first novel The Traveler two years ago, I was sympathetic to the theme of the novel: that society has become dominated by surveillance programs squeezing the freedom out of human action and leading inevitably to the cruel exercise of power. But ideological sympathy isn’t enough to get me to enjoy a book: I’ve been trying to read William Gibson’s Spook Country for two years now but I find the book so arid, cold and dark that I struggle to continue with it. The Traveler, on the other hand, is a really enjoyable book, in no small part because of its traps and puzzles. John Twelve Hawks (the author’s pseudonym) follows characters trapped by surveillance systems and works through the ways they cope (compliance, conversion, a regimen of emotional control, a random number generator, taking it to the roof, warfare) with a modicum of intelligence to happy or bitter ends. Because Twelve Hawks clearly defines and sticks to his novel’s internal rules in The Traveler, I felt swept along as a reader into the traps set for characters. My pulse quickened as I, too, desperately searched for a way out as the forces of government omniscience drew closer, ever closer. That’s how I developed a feeling of connection to The Traveler’s trapped characters.
In the second book in the series (The Dark River), the tightly-knit rules and challenges of living in a surveillance society become looser and literally less tethered to this plane of reality, but for the sake of the first novel’s characters (and a can’t-put-it-down creepy depiction of Hell) I waded through it. The only reason I finished reading The Golden City was to write this review.
This third book is utterly missing the intelligent characters and the rigorous structure that made The Traveler such a joyride. Instead, we learn that brothers Gabriel and Michael (how archangelic) have come to stand against one another on opposite sides of the fight for freedom and control, saving the world with their super powers of traveling to astral realms of something-or-otheriness. That’s a disappointment on three counts.
First, it’s a signal that the author has abandoned hope that ordinary people can break their own way out of the surveillance society. Instead, he’s decided we need a leader with super astral travel powers to guide us, a nod to the sort of deification that George Orwell warned us is an integral part of totalitarian government. That’s distasteful.
Second, the alternate astral planes of reality from which the good Gabriel and eeeeevil Michael derive their powers are arbitrary in nature. There’s a realm of animals, and there’s a realm of shell people, and there’s a realm empty of people altogether, and there’s another realm of people who do this and that, and one of the realms wants to communicate with us by quantum supercomputer, and one of the other realms has people who want to travel over to our realm but can’t. In one realm you can’t eat anything or you’ll be trapped there forever, in another realm it’s ok to eat the food and drink a blue liquid that makes you feel odd but doesn’t hurt you really, and in a third realm there’s a flash flood. Does that sound like a laundry list? It sure reads like a laundry list, and the laundry list is never explained, never drawn together into a scheme that makes sense. Why doesn’t the author throw in some Midichlorians while he’s at it?
Third, the transformation of these two angelic characters from sympathetic allies in the first book into opposing avatars of good and evil in the third book has no compelling reason for it. All we get are a few conversations in which the good Gabriel says (to our relief) “I see now,” or the evil Michael says (to our horror), “I see now.” Although the brothers start in the same place, they never look back as they grow more distant from one another. Gabriel never questions his path as a savior; Michael never questions the wisdom of ripping people apart with hooks. That makes these characters dumb and stupid in the old sense of mute, incomprehensible opacity; they are ciphers to the reader.
Gabriel and Michael aren’t the only characters in The Golden City who aren’t too bright. There’s a race of “half-gods” in some astral plane who have perfected an ultimate system of violent social control over the cattle-like people who live there; it’s the author’s depiction of what will happen to our own world if surveillance is allowed to expand unchecked. These “half-gods” are really smart; they’ve figured out how to keep everyone, everywhere in line in their world, and they want to take over our world. The only problem is that they can’t figure out how to cross over. So they strike a deal with Michael: if they give Michael some new supertechnology, Michael will have to help them cross over to Earth. Michael agrees, but only on the condition that he be allowed to go back home for a bit first. He promises he’ll come back and help them with the whole interdimensional dominion thing later on. Oh, OK, sure, say the super geniuses, here’s the advanced technology, come back soon, and have fun storming the castle! Michael walks off with the new supertechnology, cackling, with no plan of ever coming back, as the super genius “half gods” smile and wave goodbye like country bumpkins. Dumb, dumb, dumb!
More really stupid characters: a henchman turns from evil to good after he decides he doesn’t want to kill children, even though he’s been coldly killing children through the first two books. Why the change? The observers behind the surveillance cameras are so good at tracking people down that they can find and kill a renegade on an off-grid ferry in Canada. Yet they never find the London hideout of our anti-surveillance heroes, even though the cameras watch everything and everybody in London, because they go to a secret room hidden behind a drum shop! Why the difference? The Vast Machine is clever enough to find a pedophile killer with just the right set of capabilities for striking fear into the populace, is clever enough to pluck him out of a prison in Thailand and shuttle him all the way to California, but is too stupid to keep him from running out of a hotel room. Dumb, dumb, dumb!
With characters who’ve moved from whip-smart to dense, and with settings that have moved from tight and well-defined to arbitrary, the Traveler series has really fallen apart at its end. It just doesn’t make sense anymore, even on its own terms. Darn.