What entropy Means to Me: Definitely a weird book

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsWhat entropy Means to Me by George Alec EffingerWhat entropy Means to Me by George Alec Effinger

Obviously a first novel and very New Wave-y, in some places to the point of excess, What entropy Means to Me is still a very ambitious book which tackles the idea of story itself and its impact on our lives. It isn’t always successful and is definitely a very weird book. It will likely take a few chapters before the reader becomes familiar with what is going on (assuming he ever does), and even then the bizarro elements and shifting of the narrative can be quite confusing.

In essence the story is about a large family of brothers and sisters (known as the First family since their parents were the initial settlers of the world) who inhabit the planet known only as Home. Their parents were exiles from Earth and seem to have brought with them little more than a huge assortment of books and, apparently, a number of chairs with which the yard of their rambling home is littered. See, weird, right? These books play a central role in the story as they have proven to be an inspiration to one of the middle sons of the family, Seyt, as he undertakes to tell the definitive tale of their existence.

There are at least three main stories being told in What entropy Means to Me: the most apparent is that of Dore, the eldest brother of the First family and the only one to have been born on Earth, and his quest across the planet Home as told by his brother Seyt. Since Dore apparently never returns to tell his tale himself, it is up to Seyt to give us the details himself as produced from his own fertile imagination. This fact in itself should give some sense of what the reader is in for.

The next level of the narrative is that which details the squabbles and internecine battles of the seemingly infinite brothers and sisters of the First family as they interrupt his narrative to give their opinions on Seyt’s skill (or lack thereof) and comments on whether or not his story is presenting a “correct” image of their brother for the political & religious interests of the family. Factions arise as the document being produced by Seyt takes on a greater and greater significance for the family as a tract meant to cement their political and religious position on Home and we begin to see their strange and convoluted mode of life through the sardonic eyes of Seyt.

Finally are the sly references that Seyt makes to his parents, known only (and importantly) as Our Father and Our Mother. On the one hand they are presented as semi-divine beings, the first settlers from the planet Earth, who apparently hold some kind of political and religious sway over all of the other families on Home; on the other hand Seyt seems to have little real belief himself in the divinity of his parents and constantly harks back to their days on earth as an impoverished criminal and apparent whore forced to flee from debt and prosecution, much to the chagrin of the more orthodox members of his family.

Our introduction to the First family is enough to tell us that there is something out of the ordinary about them and their self-image:

She was Our Mother, so she cried. She used to sit out there, under that micha tree, all day as we worked cursing in her fields. She sat there during the freezing nights… She sat there before most of us were born; she sat there until she died. And all the time she shed her tears. She was Our Mother, so she cried.

We then get a detailed description of their yard and the mismatched chairs that are scattered across it and seem to hold great meaning for the family. These chairs and the cargo of books are all that they have left from Earth and it is this importance that makes them suitable objects to be occasionally offered up for sacrifice to the River that runs close by their house and is deemed by the family to be the ultimate god of their planet.

Seyt begins his tale proper by telling us of his eldest brother Dore who seems to be one of the few siblings for whom he holds any real affection. For the most part Dore is something of a hero in Seyt’s eyes and seems very different from his other brothers and sisters, primarily in his apparent lack of interest in the squabbles and jockeying for position that seem to encompass their lives. This squabbling for power and the delusions of grandeur perpetuated by the First family caused me to see them as somewhat akin to Gaiman’s Endless, or the gods of Greek myth. They certainly take every opportunity to cover themselves with the symbols of power and divinity, whether they actually have a real claim to them or not. Dore’s quest is initiated by his family under the guise of a search for his lost Father, though in reality that seems to be little more than an explanation of convenience given by Tere, the next eldest brother whose ideas prompted the quest and who, with Dore’s departure, now enjoys the role of titular head of the family.

As the book progresses, and becomes both political and religious propaganda for the family, there are subtle changes in Seyt’s narrative and Dore the hero is sometimes seen rather as Dore the buffoon, falling from one ridiculous, and allegorical, scrape to the next. Is this due to a growing jealousy on Seyt’s part for the brother whom he is beginning to see as an absent rival, or is it simply the demands of his tale and his wish to deflate the egos of his brothers and sisters? It is not only our image of Dore that comes into question via Seyt’s words, however, and we start to wonder just who the First family really are. The majority of their contentions about their parents seem patently false, so is their contention true that they hold a place of primacy in their world? Perhaps they are little more than “…them that live in that crazy big house up to the end of the road… They’re crazy” (as seems to be the position of their closest neighbours), living in their own delusional world of power and glory, fighting only amongst themselves.

Some elements of What entropy Means to Me reminded me of James Branch Cabell’s POICTESME novels, both in the sardonic humour present in Seyt’s narration of Dore’s putative adventures, and in the character of Glorian of the Knowledge, an enigmatic figure who appears whenever Dore gets into a jam he cannot escape on his own and the power of authorial fiat is needed and who reminded me somewhat of Cabell’s character Horvendile. The book is littered with references to other books and stories and it is sometimes difficult to know how one should take it. It really is obvious that this was a first novel, and one in which the author hoped to show off all of his skill and knowledge; perhaps, alas, a bit too much. At first I found elements of the book very intriguing, then everything shifted and I wanted to drop it like a hot potato, then I persevered and started seeing more things to like. All in all I was generally charmed by the story, especially Seyt’s voice and sardonic little insights, but while I’d say that this book was an intriguing experiment, it was a bit of a hodge-podge and I don’t know if I think it was ultimately a success. Definitely worth a try if you’re into experimental fiction or sci-fi’s New Wave era, but don’t expect a straightforward narrative. You’ll have to work to get answers from this one.

Doctor, watch out! As Dore stood by, he saw the Doctor backing slowly into the corner where he would meet his fate. Initially defending himself with a torch, the Doctor searched frantically for a new method of defense. The crimson mass is lunging forward using long, tentacle-like attachments: what is that thing? Slowly the subhuman blob comes in to focus, and Dore realizes . . . it’s a colossal radish! This is a monster never before wrestled with; what are they going to do? After reading this vegetative tale, you won’t look at your garden the same way again..

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TERRY LAGO, one of our regular guest reviewers, is a Torontonian who, like all arts students, now works in the IT field. He has been a fan of fantasy ever since being introduced to Tolkien by his older brother when he was only a wee lad, though he has since branched out to enjoy all spectrums of the Fantasy genre and quite a few of the science fiction one as well. Literary prose linked with well-drawn characters are the things he most looks for in a book. You can see what he's currently reading at his Goodreads page.

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