He saw now that one of the occasional reactions against a high-powered industrial society had set in some years earlier, expressing itself as a fad for the gas-lit glories of the long-dead … But in the twenty-seventies, the new thing was mind-travel, or its possibility, which stoked rather than damped the public nostalgia … A generation grew up which dedicated itself, its energies and abilities, to escaping from their own time.
It’s been a while since I have posted anything, and while I have a holiday surprise for you today, unfortunately it’s a lump of coal and not some great long-awaited present. After the passing of SF legend Brian Aldiss, I wanted to read another of the many books written by the grandmaster. I’d greatly enjoyed his pastoral post-apocalyptic Greybeard, the brilliant odyssey Non-Stop, and even the surreal far-future presented in Hothouse. So, after looking at all the Aldiss novels I owned, I settled on Cryptozoic! (UK variant title: An Age). Which was, in no small part, chosen because 1) it was short, and 2) because Mike gave it a solid review a few years ago. And it’s an SF Masterwork after all, as-of this past November, and I’ve meant to read more of those…
Eddie Bush is an artist employed by the Wenlock Institute, sent back as a time-traveler to paint and study the Jurassic age. You see, sometime in the 2090s, a scientist realized that the only thing holding humans back from time-travel was our minds, and through mental disciplines and a cocktail of drugs, time travel was made possible—the body remains in 2093, but the mind travels back to the ancient past. Travelers can interact with other mind-travelers, but not the world itself, existing on an averaged-out version of time that can be several feet above or below what the ancient world. Oh, and time-travel isn’t possible within the last few hundred years—most people can go back to the age of reptiles, but only a rare few like Eddie can mind-travel as close to “present” as the Victorian era, part of the reason the Wenlock Institute hired him.
Anyways! Eddie Bush has spent far longer than he should have faffing about in the Jurassic, at a loss for inspiration and pondering his Oedipal issues, and constantly supervised by a gloomy woman from an even more distant future. Instead, he spends his time getting into altercations with a group of punks, having sex with one of the punks’ women, and then calling her a dirty slut because she expressed some degree of agency. Having run out of things to do, Eddie decides to check back in with the Institute, having quite overstayed his assignment (and probably his funding). He awakens in 2093 to find that the UK is now ruled by an authoritarian regime straight from the pages of Orwell, an oppressive government that now controls all time-travel devices and time-travelers, including Eddie. After going through boot camp to become one of their agents, Eddie is sent back in time as an assassin, where he promptly turns traitor and starts working for the rebels as soon as he meets then, where the plot-threads become a chaotic jumble through time.
Cryptozoic!’s ideas are an example of Aldiss at his best, all these striking concepts so big and innovative as to still defy convention and expectation today. The mind-travel concept is the kind of grand idea that only Aldiss (or perhaps Arthur C. Clarke) could have dreamt up, though the “science” in its “science fiction” is nonexistent. These ideas may be crazy, but they’re also so grand and over-the-top that I found them impressive. There’s the outline of greatness here, where these wild and crazy ideas could add up to something great.
Instead, Cryptozoic! is mired in a mess of New Wave themes that become cliché, stagnant, and dated through the author’s mishandling of them: awkward and unerotic sex scenes, combined with some abuse and misogyny to reinforce the book’s “this one and only female character is a sex object” vibe, part of the the protagonist’s many Freudian issues. I struggled through the first half, which I found a slog to get through. Then, it takes a turn from psychosexual drama with dinosaurs in the background to become a political thriller with 1984’s Big Brother in the background. That’s a random change of pace, but the novel did pick up quite a bit, and after a tedious chapter spent in a Victorian village it became a much easier read. Of all my complaints, though, my biggest is the gaping void where Eddie’s internal logic should be; it vanishes two-thirds of the way into the book when he switches allegiances, without any reason beyond “the plot demands it.”
So, I can’t in good faith recommend Cryptozoic!; it has big ideas and vision, the potential is there, but its narrative lacks the drive and coherence of Aldiss’ best. Cryptozoic! is full of the bad stereotypes associated with the New Wave, the perfect storm of drugs, sex, sexism, and armchair Freudian psychology. It has plenty of sesnawunda if that’s what you’re looking for, and it has some rich and experimental ideas. But overall I found Cryptozoic! a confusing, and boring, disappointment. If you want to remember Aldiss, maybe read something else.
For an opposing view, Mike 2theD gave it 4 out of 5, so maybe it’s not a completely unlikable book and it’s just me…
Variant Title: An Age
Author: Brian Aldiss
First Published: 1967
What I Read: Open Road Media ebook
MSRP: $7.99 ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (Kindle freebie from December 2016)
ISBN/ASIN: B0007ENHYA / B00J3EU37O