"Everybody in Cirque believes....Whether or not they come to services here or somewhere else, they all believe. They all tune in to the broadcasts; they're all part of Cirque. We're really all one people, aren't we? Because of the monitors."
|My copy of the 1978 paperback|
It is the far future, and the Earth is almost unrecognizable to us 20th-century types; Earth's mineral wealth has long been exhausted, for example. The most prominent river on Earth, the River Fundament, empties into a chasm almost ten kilometers wide, the Abyss. The Abyss has been there so long that nobody really knows how it came to be. Built around the Abyss is Earth's most prominent city, Cirque. The people of Cirque benefit from all kinds of super advanced technology, but their culture is religious and spiritual, their city home to innumerable different sects and site of a profusion of churches and temples, most of which have the Abyss at the center of their theology.
Carr's novel chronicles a pivotal day in the history of Cirque, a day on which its citizens must confront two outsiders and the revelations about Cirque they present. One of these outsiders is a visitor from outer space, a three-meter-long millipede from the Aldebaran system; Earth may be a backwater at the time depicted in the novel, but in the past Earth was the center of a galactic civilization built with human technology, humans being the most entrepreneurial and technologically innovative race in the galaxy, and a half dozen or so aliens still come to visit Earth each year. The other outsider is the colony of tentacled creatures that is discovered living among fungus and vines at the bottom of the Abyss--to the astonishment of everybody, the Abyss is not, as has been assumed for centuries, a barren shaft that extends to the molten planet core. The hideous creatures have been living on the garbage the citizens have been throwing down into the Abyss for as long as anyone can remember, and, some religious leaders immediately conclude, on the sins thrown down the Abyss by the faithful at confession. One of the novel's many characters, the head priestess at The Cathedral of the Five Elements, a woman named Salamander, believes this creature is "the Beast" of her religion's lore.
Another of Carr's many characters is a powerful psyker known as the monitor, who fills the role in Cirque played in our own times by the mass media. The monitor simultaneously reads the minds of every person in the city and sifts through these people's experiences to select the most compelling for transmission to every other person in Cirque; citizens can generally choose to receive or ignore ("tune in" or "tune out") these transmissions. The initial arrival of the benign Aldebarranean millipede, and the first sighting of the terrifying Beast, are thus experienced by thousands of people, who share not only the sights and sounds experienced by those who first encounter these outsiders, but their very thoughts and feelings. (Carr mostly ignores the privacy implications of living in such a surveillance society, though it is clear that Cirque suffers almost no crime and the police have little to do.)
|1977 Hardcover first edition|
The monitor and her role in binding together Cirque with a common culture and shared experiences is one iteration of a major theme of Cirque, how individuals can contain multiple identities, and how multiple individuals can form a single, collective identity. "The Beast" is seen by religious people as a single entity born of the sins of the people of Cirque, while the secular-minded believe it to be an ecosystem that has battened on Cirque's cast off garbage. Of course, any city is a sort of collective identity, a sum composed of diverse individuals who pursue their individual, often conflicting, interests, and Carr presents us with many characters, painting a portrait of Cirque made up of views from a number of angles.
Another of Carr's characters, Nikki, takes drugs every day to induce what we might call multiple personality disorder but which the people of Cirque would more charitably call a liberation of the various facets of her personality. She awakes as Nikki One, her "normal" personality--shy and depressed, suffering low self-esteem from being short and fat--but lives part of the day as uninhibited pleasure-seeking Nikki Two, and another as aggressive (she might insist "assertive,") bitter, manipulative and cynical Nikki Three. Nikki Three meets the millipede, and insinuates herself into its company and acts as its self-appointed tour guide. The alien, however, turns out to be as much a guide for Nikki as she is for it, as Aldebarraneans can see the future, and the visitor already knows all about the rise of The Beast and has in fact come to witness this event. During this adventure, Nikki's personality shifts into that of the rarely seen Nikki Four, who is generous and joyful, loving all and beloved by all. Nikki Four does not see the giant tentacled creatures that climb out of the Abyss as evil monsters that must be destroyed, as the religious and temporal authorities initially do, but as beautiful, graceful beings.
|For their 1979 edition, our friends in|
the Netherlands reused Paul Lehr's
cover for Jack Williamson's
The Power of Blackness
The big day, and the 223-page novel, end in Salamander's Cathedral of the Five Elements, where congregate at a major ritual all the characters, including one of the elephant-sized tentacle monsters which has escaped Gloriana's poison sprays; the monster is attracted to the building's warmth as the cold of night approaches. The blind monster makes its way through the cathedral towards the ceremonial Fire, in the process killing several people (all you Bernie bros out there will be relieved to hear that it is rich people who get killed, and most of them are actually killed by the inaccurate proton fire of Gloriana's keystone kops, who are trying to stop the monster.) Annalie's psychic powers return, but now she can control them ("Her talent had come back, but now it was her tool instead of her master") and she sees the monster through Nikki's eyes; Nikki finds the monster beautiful, and Annalie transmits Nikki's vision to everybody in the city, and in response, the monster transforms into a lump of clover covered in flowers--the Beast really is a projection of people's thoughts, and if everybody sees it as nice, it will be nice. Oy, welcome to hippyville.
Except for those dead rich people, everybody gets a happy ending and nobody has to make any sacrifices to get that happy ending. Gloriana and Salamander and Nikki all get good boyfriends, and Salamander's and Gloriana's careers become more fulfilling (though there is a case to be made that they didn't really do a very good job during the crisis and perhaps should be sacked.) Annalie quits her job as monitor, and in true have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too style she still has her psychic powers. Lily takes Annalie's place, but it is implied that monitors will no longer be worked to death as they have for centuries, but instead learn what Annalie has learned and transition back to an ordinary life after serving the community for a few years. The Aldebarranean is revealed to be the prophet of the religion of the miracle of the monster that turned into flowers; because he could see into the future he has already written his holy book of verses, and now that the events it describes have occurred it can be published and his gospel spread. Cirque will soon become rich from the tourist trade as the destination of pilgrims from throughout the galaxy.
|I like the look of this 1979|
British edition, but it is hard
to find a decent image of it online
I think Cirque deserves a mild recommendation.