As I lay me down to sleep… (review The Lancaster Rule)

13 Feb

… I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my body to preserve in a stasis pod deep underground for a couple hundred years to slow cellular degeneration and essentially keep me immortal.  Amen.

I imagine that’s how Dr. Peter Bettencourt taught his daughter to pray, just before he made her a riff on Rip van Winkle.  Open your mouth for the choo-choo train, Josie!  It’s a dangerous chemical cocktail I cooked up in the lab to help you fall asleep for a long, long time.

All right, so maybe the good doctor had better reasons than that for sending his daughter rocketing three centuries into the future in a secret cryogenic chamber buried under her childhood home.  Government oppression’s a pretty good reason.  The Bettencourts were just another happy family (with a mad scientist dad, as is quite normal in science fiction) in 2033, when Dane Lancaster became President of a friggin scary union of Europe and the Americas.  Dane was “maniacal,” a “tyrant,” “corrupted.”  According to Dr. Bettencourt and his Retro Movement, at least–ex-hippies who decided to put themselves to sleep ’til better times.  Bettencourt was assassinated, or something, but he managed to secret his daughter away, and 300 years later Josie finds herself resurrected by a team of “pod hunters” in Anno Lancaster, the reign of John.

Readers paging to the first chapter will find some such snippet of political exposition (something that usually, I admit, sets my teeth on edge).  But if it’s a little shaky, that’s all right–it is considerably made up for by Toppin’s virtuoso descriptive writing.  Here’s a small sample (from the pod hunters’ first look at the ancient stasis specimen):

There she lay, like a sea creature that lives in the deepest caverns of the underworld: nails grown long through the ages, curling inward like obscene tentacles, soft and rubbery from centuries in liquid.  Her dark hair had also grown long and billowy, fanning about her body like a spectral sea fern shroud.  Her body was frail and slack, weightlessly floating in the thick amniotic fluid.  The only sign of life was the low hum the pod emitted, like a chest freezer in the corner of your kitchen, and once every hour the sucking sound of the respirator pumping oxygen in once, and then out.

It’s poetry.

Equally effective is the early scene in which Josie’s consciousness begins to surface from that almost deathlike depth of sleep.  The dreamlike, feverish quality of Josie’s thoughts (via Toppin’s keyboard) is creepy, creepy, so extraordinarily creepy.  She captures the tenuous connections your mind makes as you wake up, the heaviness in the limbs and disconcerting physical weakness, the half-memories and uncertainty of what’s real and what’s imagined, the terror.

One  minute  I  was  saying  goodbye  to  my father,  and  the  next,  awaking  to  a  madness  of incomprehension.

(Time travel: Side-effects may include social upheaval and serious internal turmoil.)

Josie’s particular brand of time travel isn’t really new in the genre–earlier I mentioned Washington Irving’s famous time traveler Rip (although, let’s admit, stasis pods are quite a bit more SF than leprechauns in the Catskills).  What makes The Lancaster Rule compelling is how T.K. Toppin deals with the psychological aspects of waking up in a world that isn’t your own.

We’re all products of our time–shaped by its peculiar culture, prejudices and obsessions.  This isn’t a question of Nature vs. Nurture–it’s a simple fact of historical contingency.  We can go to Western Civ 101 and gaze blankly at powerpoints about the 15th-century, uncomprehending.  Divine Right of Kings?  But that’s ridiculous!  Or the 19th century (what do you mean women are less intelligent than men because menstruations diverts so much blood from the brain?).  Even just decades ago, the culture and values of parents and grandparents.  It all seems absurd to us, and while some people of the time thought it was absurd too, it was perfectly logical to most.  We would be lost in the worlds of the past, but to those who lived in them, it all made perfect sense.

If you move in time, forward or back, it’s not just a spacial-temporal dislocation–it’s a cultural one too.  God Emperor of Dune (fourth in Frank Herbert’s famous series, but first in my heart, and the origin of this blog’s URL) started me thinking along these lines.  In GEoD [spoiler alert], Leto Atreides has become immortal, for various sundry reasons that involve sandworms and space (of course).  And to keep him company through the eons, he resurrects one after the other after the other a series of “gholas” (read clones) of his faithful friend of the old days, Duncan Idaho.  And Duncan has some problems with this:

Leto had a name for this transformation of the Duncans.  He called it “The Since Syndrome.”

The gholas often nurtured suspicions about the secret things which might have been developed over the centuries of oblivion since they last knew awareness.  What had people been doing all that time?  Why could they possibly want me, this relic from their past?  No ego could ever overcome such doubts forever–especially in a doubting man …

“It’s not real,” Idaho said.  “I don’t belong here … I mean here, now!  In this time!”

Idaho swallowed, and then: “You’ve committed a crime against us, Leto, against all of us–the gholas you resurrect without ever asking us if that’s what we want … There’s a time, Leto, a time when you’re alive.  A time when you’re supposed to be alive.  It can have a magic, that time, while you’re living it.  You know you’re never going to see a time like that again.”

Leto blinked, touched by the Duncan’s distress.  The words were evocative.

Idaho raised both hands, palms up, to chest-height, a beggar asking for something he knew he could not receive.

“Then… one day you wake up and you remember dying…and you remember the axolotl tank…and the Tleilaxu nastiness which awakened you…and it’s supposed to start all over again.  But it doesn’t.  It never does, Leto.  That’s a crime!”

“I have taken away the magic?”

“Yes!”

In other words, you can never go home again.

This is the kind of psychological distress Josie has to overcome in The Lancaster Rule–the incomprehensibility of total dislocation.  Plot twists and turns aside, this is the most compelling part of the novel for me, and a major aspect of Toppin’s excellent characterization.  T.K. Toppin confronts a classic SF conceit with insight, sensitivity, and a purely poetic writing style.

The Lancaster Rule is available as an ebook from Amazon for $6.0o.

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3 Responses to “As I lay me down to sleep… (review The Lancaster Rule)”

  1. Sindy Jones February 13, 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    You’ve hit one of the key elements of the book for me in this review ! The dislocation and loss of being in a different world from which you can never escape and go home. TK Toppin is very insightful and writes well for a first novel. I love the character development, humour, angst, swearing, etc. and the action is pretty intense too ! I hear the next book is in the works … cant wait !!

  2. TK Toppin February 14, 2011 at 5:38 am #

    Thanks Sindy for stopping by and leaving your comment. And yes, the sequel is scheduled for a July release. Stay tuned!

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