Comparing one book to another is a lazy way to review a book, but forgive me because there’s something about Michael Flynn’s writing that conjures up other writers. When I reviewed The Wreck of the River of Stars I found an umistakable touch of Jane Austen. And In the Country of the Blind, I can’t help but be reminded of Isaac Asimov, Philip K.Dick, Umberto Eco and Eric Frank Russell, to name just a few.
But don’t for a second think that I find In the Country of the Blind derivative. It’s great speculative fiction that makes you wonder where the fiction ends and reality begins; the kind of story that makes you Google every reference. Here’s the premise: In the first half of the 19th century a secret society in America created cliology, a form of mathematics that could describe the past and predict the future, very much like psychohistory, the science that Isaac Asimov created for his Foundation trilogy. Psychohistory and cliology maintain that while it is impossible to predict what one person might do, it’s possible to predict what large numbers of people can do. It’s not much different than pollsters predicting the outcome of an election, but cliology can predict events a hundred years in the future.
Of course, the mathematics of predicting the future are quite complex, but the early society was aided by the Analytical Engine, the calculating machine that inventor Charles Babbage described but never built. But they built Babbage’s computer and even named themselves the Babbage Society; and they weren’t content just predicting the future, they also wanted to shape it.
Sarah Beaumont is a former reporter turned real estate developer who stumbles across Babbage’s computers long forgotten in a Denver warehouse. She also finds scientific papers related to the society’s work. Unfortunately her investigations means she now knows too much and soon she’s dodging an assassin’s bullets in Civic Center park. Meanwhile other people with whom she’s confided are also ending up in the hospital or dead. Sarah finds a protector, however, in Red Malone, an operative who may or may not work for the Babbage Society. Not that Sarah thinks she needs protecting as she proves quite capable, maybe even a little too capable for credulity, and even saves Malone’s life.
It’s a lot of fun for me, a Denver citizen, to be reading a book set in the city I love and surrounding area. I especially enjoyed the shootout in the ruins of the Walker Mansion in Mount Falcon State Park. Sarah and Red have fled to Mount Falcon hoping to meet another operative who will take them to a safe house, but it’s a lousy place for a rendesvouz and I think Flynn chose it more for its picturesque qualities than its suitability as a meeting place.
Here I should mention that as much as I enjoyed the book, it does have some problems that are probably attributable to its publishing history. I think it’s Flynn’s first novel, originally published in the late 1980s in serialized form, again in 1990 as a paperback and as a hardcover in 2001, the edition I am reviewing. The technology of the 2001 edition seems positively creaky, with Sarah using a dial up modem to connect to the web (I had already been using DSL for three years in 2001), which makes sense when you consider the original novel probably referenced dial-up bulletin boards.
And the main character Sarah is far too intelligent and capable to be believed, being an accomplished pianist, computer programmer, ex journalist and knife thrower. For instance, I recognized the reference to Babbage and his calculating engines, but unlike Sarah I did not know off the top of my head that he’d been the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge from 1828 to 1839.
But I’m willing to overlook Sarah’s accomplishments — hell, I envy them. I also don’t object — as some Amazon reviewers have — to the huge number of characters in the book. But I do object to the backpacking cat that accompanyies Sarah during the climb up Mount Falcon. It seems like something from one of Robert Heinlein’s juvenile books (damn, I just brought in another author), and as a cat owner I can’t imagine the terror of stuffing a cat in a backpack.
Quibbles aside, Flynn’s basic conjecture — that there’s a secret society that’s been shaping American history — makes for an entertaining story. Crackpots have been promoting this idea for years, of course, blaming the Masons, the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission and the media elite for the mess we’re in. I could not help but think of Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier, where those controlling our destinies were invisible aliens. But Flynn’s Babbage Society seems like the real deal, using mathematics, its long existence and well placed followers to accomplish its goals.
But as in Umberto Eco’s Focault’s Pendulum, there are some real questions about the society’s effectiveness. Have the actions of the Babbage Society actually changed the future? Or are they just claiming for success for what would have happened anyway? And the Babbage Society are not the only players in this game, a twist that reminds me of countless Philip K. Dick stories where are several points in the story where EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG.
By the end the book is a jumble of factions that all claim either a knowledge or control of the future, but ultimately the story is about Sarah’s place in the universe and whom she calls family and what she calls home, and that makes this giant story something to which anyone can relate.
What did you think of this review?