REVIEW: The Commons by Matthew Hughes

REVIEW SUMMARY: An interesting blend of science fiction and fantasy elements.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Guth Bandar explores the world of the human collective unconscious, which is becoming not so unconscious after all.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Intriguing world with mind-expanding ideas; cool science-fantasy setting; deals heavily with archetypes yet avoids cliché.

CONS: Needed stronger characters; some adventures weaker than others.

BOTTOM LINE: A good read that’s piqued my interest in other stories set in this universe.


One of my seemingly never-ending quests this year has been to quantify elements of fantasy fiction that appeal to me. To that end, The Commons by Matthew Hughes offers another positive data point.

The story is set in Hughes’s Archonate universe. Actually, it’s a series of stories; The Commons is a fix-up novel. The protagonist is Guth Bandar, a scholar of The Institute for Historical Inquiry, a group tasked with mapping out the human collective unconscious. This is a setting in which all of humanity’s common, eternal archetypes exist. (Imagine a Holodeck or a Matrix where these many archetypes play out their stories in endless cycles.) This “noösphere” (also called “The Commons”) is thus the distillation of all human experience. A noönaut like Bandar enters the Commons through meditation, and his psyche traverses it using various chants (called “thrans”) to move among different landscapes and remain hidden from the more nasty archetypes. But if he lets his guard down, he is absorbed by it and his Earthly body will forever remain in a coma-like state.

The mind-expanding concept behind the noösphere is what gives The Commons its science-fantasy feel. The Reality is a far, far future, but excursions into the noösphere read like fantasy/adventure stories. And here was a potential danger for a reader like me who has a hit-or-miss experience reading fantasy. Thankfully The Commons worked for me. Why? Because my main gripe with fantasy (that “magical” things seem to happen without any in-story explanation or rules to govern their usage) is suddenly no longer an issue. The noösphere is not reality. No detailed, science-based explanation is needed when, for example, Bandar has the power to change his form or become invisible by uttering a three-three-seven chant that sounds suspiciously like the children’s song “This Old Man”. All that needs to be understood is that anything can happen. The events of the story thus become plot points instead of distractions.

Like many stories that are strung together to form longer novels, there are two characteristics that spring forth: an episodic feel to the book and a multi-episode story arc. The Commons exhibits both of these.

The story arc concerns Bandar’s education of the noösphere and the realization that the noösphere is becoming self-aware. Hughes does a good job of advancing that arc with each story-long chapter. But characterization is another matter. Perhaps there is less of a need to do so in installments, but a book-length story needs strong characters. Bandar is sympathetic, sure, but he’s not much more than that. For his role as Hero (in the eyes of readers; in The Commons we learn that his destiny lies with another role entirely) he is definitely more reactive than proactive. Things usually happen to him by surprise. (“That’s not supposed to happen” is a common utterance by Bandar.) The only other significant recurring characters (scholarly rival Didrick Gabbris and “Multifacet”, the manifestation of the self-aware noösphere) are too fleeting and don’t offer any real characterizations either. In the end, Hughes compensates for this deficiency via capable prose and adding enjoyment through occasional dose of covert humor throughout the stories. And he successfully avoids cliché, no small feat considering he is constantly dealing in common archetypes.

As for plot details of each individual episode, here are the notes I took to jog my memory. I note here that The Commons is comprised of modified versions of previously-released stories: “A Little Learning”, “Inner Huff”, “Help Wonted”, “A Herd of Opportunity”, “Bye the Rules” and “The Helper and His Hero”.

  • In the first story, Bandar is a third-year student at The Institute for Historical Inquiry. Bandar follows his teacher to investigate an impossible breach between the human noösphere and an alien noösphere.
  • As a struggling graduate, Bandar takes a test traversing a course through the Commons where he is forced to prove his mettle. When rival Didrick Gabbris blocks his proscribed path, a detour takes Bandar to an icy mountain where he meets some very amorous cavewomen in a situation that deftly avoids silliness thanks to the author’s sly wit. Then it’s on to a more serious setting: a war between Heaven and Hell with Bandar is caught in the middle. This is the strongest chapter of the book.
  • Graduation sees Bandar in just as much trouble, this time in the unfortunate role of pig in the noösphere’s all-too-real version of The Three Little Pigs. Here is where the multi-episode story arc begins to emerge as we see that the noösphere, heretofore believed to be a collection of unconscious memes, is beginning to show signs of being aware.
  • After suffering disgrace with the Institute, Bandar finds himself yet again in the noösphere, this time being tested by the noösphere itself. Although this outing was the weakest, it does become clear that the noösphere is indeed self-aware.
  • In another story, the noösphere is able to enter Bandar’s dreams and thrust him into a Situation that starts out as Western but interestingly blends in alien invasion tropes. There’s something appealing about the sight of a flying saucer over the streets of the Old West.
  • In the final episode (spread over two chapters just like it was published across two episodes of Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine), Bandar strives to better understand the noösphere. He meets up with two mysterious strangers who are obviously (too obviously) more than they seem; one in particular exhibits unprecedented abilities. This is the longest episode of all and is also the most ambitious, but there is a cost. The story tries to layer in too many elements at once – murder mystery, debilitating disease, shady faith healer, noösphere prodigy, alien world-building – and therefore takes some time to get off the ground. On the plus side, Hughes does manage to successfully juggle all of them most of the time, with the ending offering nice closure to the story arc of the noösphere’s self-awareness. It also shows us Bandar’s ultimate fate. (Note: Regarding alien world-building, Hughes mentions the substance known as “black brillion”, which is the title of one of his books set in this universe.)

All told, The Commons was a good read and has piqued my interest in other stories of the Archonate universe.

7 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Commons by Matthew Hughes”

  1. I’ve read “Fools Errant” and enjoyed it. I’ve also read a chapbook with an Archonate story that Hughes kindly sent me in the wake of his project to get people to blog about his work.

    I intend to read more Archonate stuff too, and I will add this to my list of books to pick up.

  2. Bad choice of novel in the Archonate Universe, I think that it is the least interesting. You should try Black Brillion or Majestrum.

  3. Paul: Another data point…I’ve read Hughes’s “The Gist Hunter” novella and thought it was very good.

    Alain: I have a copy of Black Brillion waiting patiently in “to-read” warehouse. :)

  4. I completely agree with you, John, that the idea of the noosphere is fascinating.

    But I still can’t get past the weak characterization. I don’t have a problem with the fact that Bandar is reactive or a bewildered & frustrated Helper because characters that are flawed, weak or ineffectual can be quite interesting and powerfully touching. The issue is that there isn’t much of anything else to Bandar’s personality except that label – he is the much put-upon explorer and nothing more (and not really much of an explorer at all – more of a hiker who’s scared off the path briefly by a barking dog – or Big Bad Wolf as the case may be).

    In a story – or set of stories – in which Bandar’s the only real character, he needs far more depth than Hughes has given him to carry the reader through. One could argue that lack of characterization tends to be a weakness in short stories, and since this is a fix-up, that would fit, but I don’t think that has to be the case, and certainly if Hughes was going to take the trouble to actually amalgamate the components into a fix-up, some extra text to flush out Bandar is warranted.

    The difference between a good idea and a good story is that a good story has good characters to make it worth exploring the good idea through to the end. A good idea in the absence of good characters is only interesting for about a page or two. This is the tragedy of The Commons.

    I haven’t given up on Hughes or the Archonate universe – I may take Alain’s suggestion and pick up Black Brillion in a while, but I can’t seem to get past my general indifference to The Commons.

  5. Point taken.

    I notice, too, in a follow-up post of yours, you referenced John Clute’s review of the book. He also found it to be lacking. But it seems to me, in reading his review and taking in what I could before my eyes glazed over, that he is (like all readers) bringing his own expectations to the book. In his case, there are some serious comparisons to (and expectations of) Jack Vance’s work. By Clute’s own admission: “…to like The Commons we must ignore Jack Vance.” Good idea, let’s do that. Let’s judge the book on its own merits.

    Clute is a professional reviewer and likes to rate books in relation to one another. I see reading experiences as being grouped into comparable buckets. So, Old Man’s War (a popcorn book) was about as enjoyable to me as River of Gods (a “Literary masterpiece”).

    And thus my impression of the The Commons: It’s a science-fantasy book that’s a good (admittedly not great) read, especially when viewed in light of my usual indifference towards fantasy.

    But, to each his own, eh?

  6. In fact The Commons is more or less the same story that Black Brillion but told from a different point of view, with the explanation of the life of a minor character of Black Brillion. It appears thus very artificial and uninteresting, at least to those who read Black Brillion. I don’t know how Black Brillion will get along being read after the commons ?

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