By Kris Saknussemm
Villard Books, 2005
"Man is a god in ruins."—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Kris Saknussemm's irreverent comic novel Zanesville has provoked effusive praise from critics while quietly growing a cult following. Revolution SF hailed it as "the most original and daring novel of the year", while Booklist went a step further in its starred review, calling it "brilliantly inventive black comedy" and "one of the most creative, edgy and entertaining novels SF has spawned in a decade".
Saknussemm remarked that "Zanesville has much to do with what strange forms the religious instinct takes in America."(1) The novel examines these religious mutations with both the curiosity of an anthropologist and the barbed wit of a political comedian.
The book takes place in the near future, when America and a good portion of the world are controlled by a monolithic corporation called Vitessa that has consolidated into one mega-consortium all the major multinationals of today, and has struck an alliance with the Christian Right in the wake of a full-scale holy war with a shadowy Muslim extremist organization.
The organization manipulates culture through its absolute ownership of the media, which is ubiquitous and (for those who can afford it) supplied directly to the brain. It has also taken the pharmaceutical management of emotional moods and psychological functioning to new extremes. Rather than simply producing new psychoactive medications, they generate new neuroses and psychological disorders, thus creating an endless and always hungry market for their "treatments" (for which there of course are no cures).
Not surprisingly, those who resist this authority in cells of freedom fighters are viewed by Vitessa as terrorists. One such cell, using sophisticated cloaking technology, operates in secret in Central Park in New York. It is into their midst that a very curious night visitor arrives, an amnesiac with strange psychic powers, apparently brought back from the dead—regenerated from the amputated penis of a murdered cult leader. Carved brutally into his back, as if by torture, are the words "FATHER FORGIVE THEM F...."
The mission of this stranger in a strange land appears to be the undermining of Vitessa, the reestablishment of some form of democratic order in America and a return to spiritual freedom instead of rigid orthodoxy. But the Central Park rebels fear that his psychic powers and unstable mental state make him a danger to their organization and so reluctantly send him off on a journey of discovery across America. They give him the code name Elijah Clearfather and provide him with a map to the key destinations in the life of the murdered cult leader from the past.
He is both pursued by the forces of Vitessa, and supported by various allies in classic spy-thriller style. Hovering in the background is the ghostly presence of a man who now calls himself Stinky Wiggler, a mysterious and extremely eccentric genius responsible for much of the new age technology that drives Vitessa, but who has gone into deep seclusion. Some people believe he is dead. He may also be the regenerated form of another prodigy from the more distant past—a super-inventive Tesla-like figure named Lloyd Meadhorn Sitturd who disappeared in 1913. For Clearfather, behind every answer appears to be another question. Behind every decision hides another conspiracy. Pursued by an enemy he can't always identify, using powers he can't always control, he must navigate a labyrinth of mirrors to try to find the truth about himself and America.
It is this larger and simultaneously more personal and intimate allegorical search for identity that distinguishes Zanesville from much-hyped books like The Traveler and Oryx and Crake, and the vast number of more conventionally defined SF books, such as David Marusek's recent Counting Heads or the work of authors like Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, and Vernor Vinge.
The novel's overt religious and political themes are often handled farcically, as when Clearfather's psychic powers bring to life the giant cartoon hologram characters who serve as mascots for the Christian-controlled national daycare service. One of these, an enormous blue duck named Dooley, has a consciousness-raising experience and develops genitals and some feisty ideas on the importance of sexual freedom, eventually leading a rebellion amongst his cartoon associates against their corporate masters.
Some conservative Christians have taken offense at the Dooley subplot and the book's implicit criticism of the growing political and economic power of the Christian Right in America. Others have apparently not been able to get past the idea of a character being regenerated from an amputated penis, perhaps missing the reference to the story of the Egyptian God Osiris.
Those whose sensibilities are not so delicate will find a great deal of humor here—those who enjoy the humor of Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut will have no problem with this aspect of the book and will find themselves laughing out loud.
This is not only about laughter, though, and at times Saknussemm delves into the struggle to find personal and spiritual answers with a symphonic urgency and anguish. Witness this powerful declaration from the protagonist during his "dark night of the soul", when he feels that all is lost:
My quest is over, he thought. I have been baptized in my own blood. I have given birth to a new monster of myself. Now it's time to bury the dead child of my past. In honor of my lost love I will give the gifts of vengeance and destruction. I summon the violence, I call forth the fears, I command the dreams. My kingdom gone, my will be done. As it is in my mind, so will it be in the outer night.
From the ludicrous hilarity of cartoon characters come to life and challenging authority to the pathos and destruction that results when Clearfather, spiritual weapon and fertility god in training, goes on a rampage, this is the achievement of Zanesville. Rarely in any genre has a novel so divergently addressed the Big Questions, not simply of the universe, but how individuals connect with it. In doing so, Saknussemm expands the possibilities of science fiction with the same exhilarating suddenness of books like Neuromancer. Where Gibson's masterpiece gave us a new technological and psychological interface with the future, Zanesville confronts both the political and spiritual aspects.
Profound, funny, frightening—the result is a deeply human book about our increasingly metahuman destiny.
- Interview at the Happy Booker, http://thehappybooker.blogs.com/the_happy_booker/2006/03/the_morning_aft.html. [Back]