What If? Author John Shirley asks some tough questions in his new novel.
John Shirley dives into 'The Other End' in new sci-fi novel
By Rick Kleffel
JOHN SHIRLEY is nothing if not brave. "If God came to you and said, 'I need a consultant,'" Shirley says, "'and can you tell me, because ... this is such a mess, how am I going to rearrange things? How should I go about it? How would you design it?' I feel that we should all be given access to that kind of thought experiment, let's say, in order to help create a paradigm for a changed world." Shirley, one of the founders of the school of cyberpunk fiction, has found new ways to write on the edge of life. His latest book, The Other End, envisions an alternative apocalypse, one conceived deliberately in opposition to the enormously popular Left Behind series by Tim Lehaye and Jerry Jenkins.
The novel begins with an author's foreword that sets out quite clearly the terms of what is to follow. "Let novels of the Christian Apocalypse bloom—this novel is written from the Other End of the philosophical spectrum." Shirley provides some spectacular visions, thoughtful extrapolations, entertaining characters and obvious political satire. He's a smash-and-grab artist who takes prisoners, then sends them straight to their eternal reward—generally not the eternal reward they expect. The end begins with cosmic radiation that inspires visions and real changes from within for a certain segment of the population. Jim Swift is a reporter for the Sacramento Bee who comes across events that belong squarely in the "news of the weird" realm of Fortean Times reporter Ed Galivant. Cones of light in the sky are only the first changes to sweep across the world. In the chaos that swiftly follows, the suffering in the world is viewed and events are set in motion to right the wrongs that plague the land. Alas, many of these wrongs are being perpetrated by the Right and the righteous. Judgment Day has arrived, but the judges are not those expected by those who have been hoping for it to arrive sooner rather than later.
Shirley himself does quite a bit right with this novel. He gives the reader a panoply of characters who are easy to tag but not simply good guys and bad guys, though there are plenty of those as well. Particularly impressive is Dennis Boyce, who commits suicide in the scene with which he is introduced. Leave it to Shirley to manage that conundrum nicely. Shirley is not afraid to engage in partisan politics, so expect pretty much anyone who would be identified as "far right wing" to end up on the evil side of the equation. But Shirley's strengths as a chronicler of the travails of the lower middle class in America ensure that there are enough sympathetic characters to keep us reading. Even better, the unsympathetic characters get a well-deserved and rousing come-uppance.
Given that the novel is a horror-fiction thought experiment, it's nice to see a well-thought-out philosophical and theological backdrop. The novel describes what is essentially an invasion from the realm of Platonic ideals—exterminating Platonic ideals. The thought-experiment details are grooved to drive the action both visually and thematically. In some sense, the novel is an epileptic's apocalypse, with the sort of visual hallucinations that characterize brain disorders brought to slice-and-dice life. What Shirley does exactly right as a writer is to strip down his novel into a thrill-packed action ride, with each slice of the knife driven by a series of very understandable ideals. You'll read this book in a day or two and be charmed by Shirley's characters and his generous sense of humor. The laughs here are all over the map. From a subtle suicide to a heavy-handed disposal of heavies, Shirley spares no-one.
The Other End is bound to cause comment from both ends of the political spectrum, but it's not just a tract or a polemic. It reads quite simply, but unpacks with a surprising level of complexity. Even those treated with the least respect here are treated in a manner strictly in accordance to Shirley's premise. He debunks the LeHaye/Jenkins interpretation of the Book of Revelations with fact-finding accuracy. Shirley may make as many enemies with this novel as friends, but he gives anyone willing to read the novel lots to think about, and sends everyone else to a well deserved, just reward. Vengeance is mine, says John Shirley.
The Other End by John Shirley; Cemetery Dance Publications; $40 cloth.
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