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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Childe Cycle: Necromancer

In Necromancer (1962) we travel back to a time when interstellar flight is still under development. All humans live on Earth, which is run by a giant computer network called the World Complex. The world is a lot like ours, only more complicated and mechanized, and some people are starting to reject that complication, hoping to find something else they feel more attuned to. Among these groups in the Chantry Guild, run by Walter Blunt. He's a mystic of sorts, who claims to have discovered and mastered the Alternate Laws, a source of psychic powers. His goal is to destroy technological civilization to build a new world based on the Alternate Laws.

Enter Paul Formain, a mining engineer. A few years ago, he almost died after being lost at sea in a small boat. In fact, he hallucinated that he'd died and been brought back to life by a robed magician. Now, on his first day at a new mining job, he spends an idle moment watching a news broadcast about the Chantry Guild. Something about them fascinates him, and distracts him enough to cause a careless, almost-fatal accident. He survives, but loses his left arm. As compensation, his right arm grows into a massive force, like the arm of a much bigger, more powerful man. (As another character mentions, "Formain" is very close to the French for "strong hand".) His body has rejected all attempts to graft a new left arm, for no reason medical science can explain. But Paul learns that one use of The Alternate Laws is to regenerate limbs.

Paul contacts the Chantry Guild, and is taken on as a probationer. He meets Jason Warren, the Guild's second-in-command, and a beautiful young woman and talented singer named Kantele Maki, Blunt's lover. She is both attracted to and repulsed by Paul. As a first test, Paul is assigned the task of delivering cocaine to one of the Guild's clients. It goes badly, and Paul, Jason, and Kantele have to teleport themselves away using the Alternate Laws. Paul teleports, but apparently via a different mechanism, the first clue that he has some direct connection with the Alternate Laws himself.

Paul now travels to Mercury to begin his Guild training. Having passed that, he becomes a full member and necromancer in the Guild, and also takes a job working in the World Complex. Its head, Kirk Tyne, is actually a friend of Walter Blunt's, and considers him a remarkable man with a bee in his bonnet about the Complex, so he's willing to take on Paul on Blunt's recommendation. The Complex, recognizing Paul as a threat to it, uses the new technology of the "phase shift" (a hyperspace-like space drive) to transport him in a drone spacecraft to New Earth, a planet orbiting Sirius (which later becomes one of the first inhabited Younger Worlds.) He find his own way back (again, using the Alternate Laws), and discovers that Blunt had been behind everything that has happened to him, including being revivified after the boating accident. While he'd been gone, the revolt against the World Complex had begun in earnest. Paul returns to find Blunt and Tyne talking, with Blunt gloating that he'd won, and pointing to Paul as the final piece of his victory: immortality through the ability to move to a newer, younger body.

But that wasn't quite right. Paul wasn't really another Walter Blunt; he was really animated by someone else. Who? Well, we're given some clues:
  • He's traveled into the past to change the future
  • He knew what changes needed to be made because he has conscious control over his intuition
  • "Once, I was a professional soldier"
The size and strength of Paul's right arm is another clue. Donal was always self-conscious about being small for a Dorsai, and wished he were as big and powerful as the rest of the Graemes. The arm is a first step towards that; as we'll see, later on he goes further. Rather than impose Blunt's dream of destruction on the world, Paul/Donal encourages those present to seek out others like themselves, assuring them that soon space travel would allow them to go and pursue their own dreams: Jason, as new leader of the Guild will clearly found the Exotics, Burt McCleod, who's been Blunt's bodyguard, the Dorsai, and one of Tyne's underlings who's a religious fanatic, the Friendlies. Blunt leaves, a broken man, and Kantele, at least for the moment, stays with Paul.

Necromancer is the least realistic of all the Childe Cycle books. The plot is almost Van Vogtian in its complications and conspiracies, and much of the action consists of people performing impossibilities using psychic powers. It's also the most disconnected from the rest of the series. The only direct connection is that later books refer to Paul Formain and Walter Blunt as obscure historical figures. And it has what seems to me to be a glaring plot hole. Donal goes back in time to change the future. Had he not gone back, Paul Formain would have been Blunt's creature, and wouldn't have defied Blunt by encouraging the creation of the Splinter Cultures. Yet Donal came from the world of the Splinter Cultures, not the world where Blunt and the Chantry Guild had conquered the earth. There's some hand-waving in Chantry Guild about how Paul Formain's actions didn't change what happened, but only how people viewed what happened, and that resulted in changes to Donal's future, not Donal's present. That's not what Necromancer shows us.

There are some interesting parallels between Dorsai! and Necromancer. Donal and Paul travel similar paths: they begin in obscurity, and achieve positions of considerable power. Donal uses his power to try to make the human world run the way he'd like it to; Paul has learned that doesn't work, and instead leads people to make their own choices. Also, Donal and Paul both attract remarkable women, but don't know quite what to do about it.

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