As a consumer of media, I’m usually OK with works that aren’t particularly focused on plot. Some of my favorite books and films are uber-quiet stories where “nothing happens.” Heck, I’m really looking forward to the new Terence Malick film, even though it appears to have the same narrative quality of a screensaver program. Character-driven works, works where the images sweep you away, works where the ideas make up for lack of story — I’ve enjoyed all of them. Unfortunately though, Jamil Nasir’s newest, Tunnel Out of Death, managed to test even my patience for non-story-driven fiction. I think partially because it tries so hard to have a story, at least at the start. If it hadn’t, if it had dispensed with all that, I might have been more open. As it is, though, this was a tough go for me from beginning to end, though it has its moments.
Heath Ransom is an endovoyant private investigator, an empathy who can pick up “neural field leakage” from people and who also can go into a tank trance for a “viewing,” where he can enter etheric worlds and in the words of one of his clients, “talk to spirits.” Ransom himself puts it slightly differently:
Holographic torsion wave interference patterns in the vacuum field constitute the forms of this world, including the forms of what we call matter and consciousness. The matter patterns of the body dissipate after death. Do the consciousness patterns also dissipate? . . . I have no idea whether the people I seemed to talk to were spirits or completely non-personal etheric field fluctuations that my mind invested with humans shapes and voice.
Got it? Luckily, that sort of language doesn’t permeate the novel, but there is enough at the outset to make it off-putting to the point of my questioning if I was even going to continue. It does get better, though that style returns now and then.
While on a case for the aforementioned client, Ransom finds himself facing a strange sort of tunnel/vortex in the etheric world. Entering it eventually leads to his inhabiting the body of a just-killed young man and the beginning of Ransom’s attempts to uncover what appears to be a huge conspiracy involving mutants, self-aware AI, corruption at the highest levels of government, attempts at immortality, and more. All while Ransom is kept constantly on the run in order to stay alive (no real spoiler to say he doesn’t always succeed).
Nasir’s working in serious Philip K. Dick nested-realities territory here and plumbs many of the same themes: reality obviously, religion, AI, death and after-death, identity, paranoia, androids, and so on. The problem is, while Dick’s stories weren’t always stylistic achievements, and sometimes were clunky as hell in terms of plot, they were almost always interesting. Too often though, Tunnel Out of Death failed to reach that minimum level of enjoyment for me.
Beyond the clunky language issues noted above, I never found myself caring much for what happened to Ransom. I’m fine with a main character who doesn’t know if he’s a construct or not, but as a reader, I don’t want to feel he’s a construct also. I want to care about him as a person (it’s the sort of challenge in presenting a character drowning in ennui; you want the reader to feel the character’s deathly boredom without the reader him/herself feeling deathly bored). So while Ransom is always facing deadly peril, and emotional peril as well, I never felt engaged enough to care all that much. Or when he’s supposed to be wholly in love, I never believed it despite being told so, and thus when he’s crushed or elated by that love, it does nothing for me. The nested realities aspect and the repetitive nature of much of the latter part of the novel only exacerbate this lack of engagement.
Meanwhile, the secondary characters are so minor (save one) and/or painted in such small strokes, that they come across as interchangeable plot props. For instance, Ransom ends up having two separate chiefs of security at different points of the novel — you could switch them around and not tell the difference. I’m sure in a day or two I couldn’t tell you which was which. Some characters are even almost literally props, as in a sexbot who I think is supposed to tug a bit (at least in some points) at our emotions but who, to be honest, only left me feeling mostly uncomfortable with that whole aspect of the story. And believe me, I’ve no inherent problem with sex or sexbots in stories — Buffy sexbot anyone? — but this one just didn’t sit well, though I won’t go into details so as to avoid spoilers.
Nasir works hard at the whodunit aspect of the story, and then at the conspiracy aspect of it, but these plots are either dropped nearly completely or get overwhelmed by the reality questions so that they either become too complex for the reader to care or so removed from reality that the reader doesn’t care. In either case, the reader (or at least this reader) doesn’t care.
Really, what seemed to me to be the core of Tunnel Out of Death were those big questions mentioned above — what is reality, what happens to us when we die, what will happen if both humans and computers continue to evolve, and so forth. For a while, the questions were enough, but my attention began to flag because I felt I wasn’t being given anything besides the questions: plot, character, imagery; I needed at least one of those to step forward and lend a hand. Every now and then Nasir would toss me a great moment, such as the description of a small bubble kind of universe in the form of a parking lot (I won’t give away what I liked so much about several visits there), but it just wasn’t enough.
In the end, while I respected Nasir’s willingness to bite off these big questions, and his willingness to really push beyond where most authors would go with them, and then push another time or two or five. But I needed some grounding in character to humanize it, or some grounding in plot to give it some more entertainment value, or some startlement of language or image to poke me more alert. Tunnel Out of Death is an ambitious novel, but one that falls short for me.