Friday, May 15, 2015

The Omega Point by George Zebrowski

"You were the strongest, the best, the most worthy to inherit the universe, at the cost of every other intelligent race in the galaxy.  By your own criterion you lost.  You were not the strongest."
George Zebrowski's was a name I was familiar with (maybe primarily from tarbandu's and Joachim Boaz's blogs), but I don't think I had ever read anything by him when I saw the Ace 1972 paperback of The Omega Point at a used book store recently, so I picked it up.

(I may have read "Assassins of Air" in Future City, but I don't remember it.)

I really like the cover by Bob Pepper: the colors, the repeated motif of circles and horizontal lines, the draperies (I love paintings and sculptures and drawings of draperies, from Ancient Greece to Albert Moore to Leonardo to Burne-Jones), the woman holding up a ring Mucha-style, the guy going into convulsions, the pile of skeletons.  Can I like the novel as much I like as the cover?  Gadzooks, I hope so!

The Omega Point (which turns out to be the second volume of a trilogy, though it was the volume first published) was at least partly inspired by the Punic Wars, seen from the point of view of the Carthaginians. On the very first page of the book, the page which in other books often has some blurbs or other ad copy, is a retelling of the story of the young Hannibal swearing eternal hatred of Rome, and our main character, Gorgias the Fourth, is a stand-in for Hannibal.  As I guess we should expect from a Vietnam War-era SF novel, the Earth is the Roman-like evil empire, and Gorgias (are we pronouncing this "gorgeous?") is one of the last survivors of an alien culture defeated and reduced to almost nothing by the vindictive Earth.

It is the brink of the Seventh Millennium!  Humans have been colonizing the galaxy for thousands of years.  Back in 5000 or so the Herculean Empire was built, its people the hybrid descendents of Earthmen who raped aliens--this is one of the those SF novels in which the aliens are similar enough to humans that interbreeding can take place.  This is also one of those SF novels in which the aliens are better than the humans--the Herculeans have psychic powers, superior technology, and great longevity.  Despite these advantages, when the Herculeans and the Earth Federation go to war in 5148, it is the Herculeans that are defeated (after a war that lasts over a thousand years.)  The Earthmen destroy entire Herculean planets, put Herculeans to death in the vaporizer chamber, hunt the survivors for sport, and so on.  (Zebrowski attributes to the Earth all the crummy things white people have done to non-whites throughout history.)

Our story takes place hundreds of years after the end of the war.  Three-hundred year old Gorgias the Fourth, Emperor of the extinct Herculean Empire, is on the run in his one-man super space ship.  Since the end of the war he has been committing acts of murder and sabotage here and there, and we follow him on a few such missions. Between missions he searches the ruined planets of the Herculean Empire for a super weapon that can perhaps turn the tide of this one man vs the galaxy war, and visits another of the handful of Herculean survivors, Myraa, a beautiful woman who has the ability to absorb the consciousnesses of other people; within her live the souls of several other Herculeans.

We also follow Rafael Kurbi, the human currently tasked with pursuing Gorgias. Kurbi admires Gorgias, and has contempt for his own people; he hopes to make peace with Gorgias.  Kurbi thinks that human culture has become decadent, and that an infusion of Herculean culture would energize the human race.

This anti-Western space opera reminded me of Michael Moorcock's fantasies of Elric, Dorian Hawkmoon, and Oswald Bastable, in which the West, or thinly veiled symbols of England, are the evil empires and the admirable characters from these evil empires "go native" and turn on their fellows.

Two thirds of the way through the book Kurbi catches up with Gorgias, who has found the super weapon he has been looking for.  Kurbi tries to negotiate with Gorgias, but Gorgias refuses, and there is a battle on Myraa's planet that sees the employment of ray guns, forcefields, and a planetary laser bombardment by the Earth space navy, among even more amazing technological military marvels.  In the end Gorgias is killed, but his soul is captured by Myrra.  In the last few pages of the book we get a sense-of-wonder collective unconsciousness climax--Gorgias and Myraa will live forever, at one with the universe, loving every living thing:
He knew she felt his strength inside her, a new addition to the power which would enable the entire community to burst the confines of entropy and space-time.
On the lookout for classical allusions, I was reminded by the death of Gorgias of the death of Pompey in Lucan's Pharsalia.  At the start of Book Nine of Pharsalia, Pompey's soul tours the universe and then settles in the hearts and minds of republican heroes Brutus and Cato.  (Repeated references to the fact that Gorgias has much human blood perhaps should also point us towards Pharsalia, an epic recounting the civil war that broke out when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and invaded Italy; in fact, the translation I own, that of Susan H. Braund, is titled Civil War.) 

Though full of interesting stuff, The Omega Point is not very good.  While not particularly long (169 pages, with blank pages between the 17 chapters) it feels long; individual scenes can be long and full of unnecessary detail, like a four-page description of an orchestral performance (Gorgias assassinates the composer, but don't feel bad for him, Kurbi says he was a second-rate artist) and the sleep-inducing set-in-italics six-page New Wave dream sequence:
Fear became a glow reknitting the strands of his consciousness, reinforcing the matrix of his individuality, the craggy-lightning pattern of his nervous system buried deeply in his flesh, spine and brain....
The book can be pretentious, with lots of epigraphs consisting of quotes from Freud, Shakespeare, Unamuno, Teilhard de Chardin, and others.  The style is not very good, and the characters are not very interesting.  The plot feels kind of thrown together, like Zebrowski made it up as he went along, or was trying to reach a certain page count; some scenes feel unnecessary, and the novel lacks a clear focus or theme.  What is the book trying to be?  An action adventure?  A denunciation of Western imperialism? The story of a lonely man who is full of hate, and grows to the point he knows and loves all of creation?  A meditation on how you should not be blinded by anger, but should learn to love all things because we are all components of the same universe, all sparks of the divine fire?  I think maybe it is trying to be all those things, but not doing any of them very well.  

In 1983 a revised version of The Omega Point was published as a component of a single-volume edition of The Omega Point Trilogy.  Maybe the revision is a big improvement; Poul Anderson and The New York Times were crazy about the trilogy! (Squint or right click the image below to read the glowing blurbs!)

I have to give The Omega Point (1972) a marginal thumbs down.  It is not terrible and I can envisage a revision that tightened up the plot and pacing and improved the style enough that I would have enjoyed it.  (As the hours go by the things I didn't like about the novel fade from memory, while its virtues grow in prominence.)  If I spot the 1983 trilogy on the shelves of a used bookstore I will have to strongly consider buying it and giving The Omega Point a second chance.

No comments:

Post a Comment