Monday, October 19, 2009

Review of Wayland's Principia

Title: Wayland’s Principia
Author: Richard Garfinkle
Genre: science fiction
Price: $32.95
Publisher: Achronal Press
ISBN: 978-0-578-03514-7
Point of Sale: Amazon
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib

I’ve met Richard Garfinkle at various Chicago-area science fiction conventions, so when he offered to send me a book to review, I accepted. Richard and his wife, Alessandra Kelley, founded Achronal Press to publish “top-quality, difficult-to-classify fiction.” The book I reviewed, Wayland’s Principia, fits that description perfectly.

The book has an interesting premise – humans receive a communication from aliens, but they are so different from us that, even after years of trying, we simply can’t translate or understand the message. Then, one Constance Marchant decides that the key to cracking the code is to become like an alien – a Guest. One of the first things revealed is that the aliens can’t travel faster than light and are not coming to visit us.

Cracking the code after the failure of human science causes massive upheavals, both social and political. The United States becomes divided into dozens of “Manders” (from gerrymander), as do many other states. Universities and professors become almost extinct, and the world is largely ruled by Guests, who distribute a flood of alien technologies. Then, it’s suddenly discovered that the aliens are coming after all.

Since all that happens in just the prologue and first chapter, to say Wayland’s Principia is dense is somewhat of an understatement. The rest of the book concerns the voyage of a small human contingent on the alien ship, cycling through all five known alien worlds. During the trip, we discover that the human Guests have underestimated how weird the aliens are. It's a wild ride, and personally, I found one rather minor character, a “Skyvolk” (human who lives in a space habitat) named Britt Lookdown to be my point of stability on this trip.

This is the science fiction of Ideas, and it immerses the reader in a whole new universe. It’s the kind of book that could use a glossary and a table of characters, but at 490 pages it’s already a doorstopper. Don’t get me wrong – I liked Wayland’s Principia – but it’s not light beach reading. Garfinkle has delivered a thought-provoking, intelligent and interesting read.

Since Achronal Press is a new and experimental publisher, I’d like to briefly digress from the actual book to talk economics. I’ve said before that writing is an art and publishing is a business. In a self-publish environment, especially Print-on-Demand, which Achronal is using, page-count matters. A lot. Wayland’s Principia is 490 pages, and they are asking $32.95 on Amazon. The trade paperback of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (admittedly over a hundred pages shorter) lists at $12.95. The economics of POD push authors to write short. Actually, it’s much like the Golden Age of science fiction, where paper costs and markets favored short fiction.

At any rate, I found Wayland’s Principia an enjoyable and thought-provoking read, and I wish Richard and Alessandria the best of luck on their new venture.


Note – I received a free copy of the book reviewed, which remains my property.

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