REVIEW SUMMARY: An interesting blend of science fiction and fantasy elements.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Guth Bandar explores the world of the human collective unconscious, which is becoming not so unconscious after all.
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.