Saturday, December 8, 2012

Review: The Other End, by John Shirley

Baltimore, MD: Cemetery Dance Publications, 2007, pp. 292.

In The Other End noted cyberpunk and horror writer John Shirley turned his attention to presenting an alternative version of the dispensationalist "Rapture." The tale begins with a rush of particles from deep space that seems to be communicating unusual visions to selected individuals. Suddenly "awake" after these experiences, these people (who have usually been doing the wrong thing all along) suddenly choose to do the right thing instead, often at great personal risk to themselves-ranging from human-trafficking Cambodian gangsters in California to homicidal Ugandan irregulars rampaging through the Congo, to corrupt Pakistani prison guards (and many a U.S. Senator and CEO too) in an "epidemic of justice" that cannot but threaten the Order of Things as They Are, and all who benefit from it, who naturally struggle to resist it.

The book is not long, but the scope is vast, this very much a tale of a global, cosmic event, replete with minor characters whose single scenes serve mainly to clarify the plot and theme. However, the narrative is structured around the experiences of three characters: Jim Swift, a divorced, middle-aged reporter from the Sacramento Bee; Dennis Boyce, a failed, suicidal songwriter; and Frank Birch, an employee of O'Hanlon Business Machines (OBM), a company threatened by the changes, and in the vanguard of trying to stop this process, leading to "an altenative End Time," a rewrite of the "Left Behind" version of Armageddon from the "Other End of the philosophical spectrum . . . for people who would prefer to imagine another . . . more just end."

This was not the first time that Shirley took a genre and applied this kind of ideological twist, having arguably done the same with the high-tech war adventure story in the Eclipse trilogy. As might be expected, The Other End is rather less action-packed, and somewhat more idea-driven, but there is plenty that is familiar from his earlier work. The liberal political, social and metaphysical perspective of the story, about which Shirley describes himself as "unapologetically partisan," is easily recognizable from stories like "And the Angel With Television Eyes," "Ticket to Heaven," "The Peculiar Happiness of Professor Cort," and "Preach: Part Two: The Apocalypse of the Reverend John Shirley" (all of which you can find in his 1998 collection, Really, Really, Really, Really Weird Stories) - as well as his interest in the mystic George Ivanovich Gurdijeff, about whom he penned a nonfiction book in 2004, Gurdijeff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas.

Along with Gurdijeff's thought there is a dose of Gnosticism, and a fair bit of Jacob Boehme, all brought together in an "Other End" bereft of superstition (but not a higher intelligence, albeit one which explicitly rejects that last refuge of the Creationist, the label "designer"), with miracles that are ultimately explicable by way of high-energy physics. And for the most part, it is those who found the novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins so congenial to their world-views that end up on the wrong side of this Armageddon. At the end, in horror story style, it even turns out that the Evil Thing which has wreaked so much havoc may not be finished after all. The result may not be Shirley's richest or most complex work, but can still be thought of as a summary work regarding at least one thread in his career, bringing to full fruition ideas he explored in years past.

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