Circumference of the World by Lavie Tidhar
Once upon a time in the ancient era when childhood was about to bleed into pre-adolescence, we used to question if someone “liked” another person or “liked liked” them, our eyes wide in anticipation of the stressed or unstressed response. For the past half-dozen or so novels I’ve read by Lavie Tidhar, the reply each time was a no-brainer: a breathy, intense, “I like like.” With his newest, Circumference of the World, for the first time I can say agreeably enough, “I like it.” Which I absolutely did — it has a great premise, moves apace, plays with a number of genres, and throws in a slew of cameos from the so-called Golden Age of science fiction. But while I enjoyed it enough — certainly enough to recommend it — the novel didn’t have the same impact as his other works. Which, you know, still leaves the guy at 7-1 (with 7 being great or near-great and 1 being enjoyable). Not a bad record.
The premise at the heart of Circumference of the World is that, as one character says, “We’re all just complexes of information, of data.” Which is innocuous enough, but it goes further, arguing that “we were all not ourselves but reconstructed memories . . . matter swirling inside a black hole … God’s eyes into the universe.” More frighteningly, creatures existed beyond the event horizon — “eaters [that] fed on the reconstituted identities of those lives whose broken atoms had … been sucked into the lode star.”
This concept originates with the pulp sci-fi author Eugene Hartley, a very thinly veiled L. Ron Hubbard, who wrote a book called Lode Stars which is allegedly a sort of protective talisman (an “occlusion”) to ward off the Eaters. Beyond the book, Hartley also founded the church of God’s All-Seeing Eyes, which has since become a sprawling, possibly malevolent institution. The church also allegedly bought up all copies of Hartley’s book, though it’s also speculated there are other reasons the book has disappeared so that it is mythically impossible (and possibly dangerous) to find.
All of this is revealed not at the start but gradually throughout the novel. Instead, we open up with Delia Welegtabit, a young girl on the island of Vanua Lava whose family (possibly) had a copy of Lode Stars. Later, living in London and working as a mathematician, Delia enters into a relationship with another mathematician, Levi, who is desperate to make a mark in his field (at 30 he’s in the danger zone of washing out) and latches onto the ideas in Lode Stars, becoming more and more obsessed with finding a copy. When he disappears, Delia hires Daniel Chase, a used book dealer to track him down, and the book moves from a Tales of the South Pacific to a gritty realist work and now into a noir/mystery/gangster novel, as Chase finds himself entangled with Oskar Lens, a former Russian mobster (now independent) and also the world’s biggest Hartley fan/collector., as well as a firm believer in Hartley’s philosophy, though not of Hartley’s Church.
The book continues to morph (or expand) into other genres, as we enter far-future science fiction via an excerpt from Lode Star (with a character also named Delia) and semi-biography as we see Hartley’s career and his interactions (either in-person or, adding the epistolary genre, via letters from/to/about Hartley) with a who’s-who of early sci-fi, including but not limited to Heinlein, Judith Merrill, Asimov, John W. Campbell, Bradbury, A.E. Van Vogt. We even get a cameo appearance from Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Hartley writes at one point about himself and his fellow authors: “We were more than writers, we were prophets of a new age. We could see the future, we could imagine it and give it shape.” Humble Hartley was not.
As one would expect from Tidhar, he handles all these genres, and the switches between them, handily, as the reader moves effortlessly from genre to genre, POV to POV, style to style, from time to time. Everything is vividly portrayed: Delia’s early island life, the seediness of Levi’s life in London, Chase’s face blindness condition, Lens’ time in a Soviet penal camp, the Golden Age parties and relationships (Campbell in particular comes alive, while Tidhar has some fun with Heinlein’s constant advocacy of nudism). The sci-fi story, meanwhile, is full of wonderful moments and images, such as a hive-mind character who takes the form of, what else, a swarm of golden bees. It can be moving at times (one of the far-future characters is on a grief-filled quest after the death of her father), chilling at others (particularly Lens’ segments) and laugh-out-loud funny at others (“I didn’t have the heart to tell him [Heinlein] no one wanted to see his dick flopping around, thank you all the same).
But while Tidhar juggles everything smoothly and with aplomb, and crafts singular sentence with his usual mastery, I think what worked against the book for me was the book’s brevity; “everything” includes so much that I felt some of the storylines, though not all, didn’t fully meet their potential, and for those that did, such as the far-future one, they were so good I wanted more. While Lens and Delia (the future one more than the present-day one) came vividly, fully alive, the other characters felt more thinly constructed. I also felt more could have been done with the basic premise, real or not, regarding people as collections of information, the universe as a simulation, etc. Finally, while I found the Golden Age cameos entertaining, that was as far as they went. All of that creating my aforementioned sense of enjoying the book, but not being moved by it or immersed within it. Mind you, I make no complaints about enjoyment or consider entertainment an unworthy goal or result. As I said, I’m still recommending this book. I’m just not, you know, “recommending recommending” it.