Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"As Above, So Below," a Review of James Lovegrove's "The Age of Ra"

Carl Jung believed firmly in the ancient expression, "as above, so below," from the alchemical text, The Emerald Tablet. For the follower of ancient hermeticism this expression holds the key to all the mysteries of the universe. Jung used the formula to explain the relationship between the unconscious and conscious mind, whereas Hermes Trismegistus, the author of The Emerald Tablet, saw it as a key to open the magic inherent in the world.

The ultimate meaning of the adage is that the macrocosmos is mirrored in the microcosmos and that God is the same as man.

James Lovegrove uses this formula as the organizing principle of his tightly-crafted novel, The Age of Ra, to create two worlds: earth far in the future, where the Egyptian gods have defeated all other gods and divided the earth into warring factions, each aligned with a god from the pantheon; and the pantheon itself, with all its petty struggles and jealousies.

Lovegrove, therefore, tells four tales with four parallel arcs within this format: (1) the story of the gods and their movement in the pantheon; (2) the personal tale of the godly struggle between Set, Osiris, Isis and, Set's wife, Nephthys; (3) the war between the worldly factions and their struggle for dominance; and (4) the personal struggle between Lieutenant David Westwynter, a British soldier, and his younger brother Steven.

Ultimately, the novel is about fratricide and sibling rivalry, both on earth and in heaven.

The novel begins as military science fiction. David Westwynter and his paratroop unit drop behind enemy lines in the Arabian desert to rendezvous with an American unit. The British Commandos, commanded by Westwynter worship Osiris, whereas their American counterparts follow Horus. Together the two factions are waging a secret war against the Nephthysians.

Lovegrove is a good writer and he immediately establishes the rules. The novel is told from the point of view of David Westwynter; it is a tightly-constructed narrative with a no-nonsense prose style. The British commandos are an elite fighting group and we are on solid military science ground here, following the team to the rendezvous point. However, Lovegrove quickly lets us know that he is not writing a standard military science fiction novel. Our first clue is that the men carry Ba weapons and the battle locations are ancient locations, re-animated to a future context. And by the end of the chapter, the mummies arrive.

Even though Lovegrove clearly employs elements of myth, horror, and science fiction, the novel doesn't feel like a post-modernist romp. Instead, it reminds me of the movies and novels I liked as a kid. More particularly, the story of David Westwynter and his brother Steven is reminiscent of films like "Beau Geste," "The Charge of the Light Brigade," and "The Four Feathers." The difference here, of course, is the blending of three speculative tropes with the traditional British romantic novel of the early twentieth century: military science fiction, Egyptian mythology, and horror (more specifically--the mummy as horror).

The strength of the novel lies in its traditional underpinning and Lovegrove's thorough understanding of myth. To give just one example: David Westwynter rebels against his rich upper-class British family and joins the army when his younger brother dies in a sea battle. After his capture and escape from the Nephthysians, Westwynter is rescued by freedom fighters from Freegypt. The leader of the fighters is a young woman, who tells him that they are followers of the Lightbringer. The Lightbringer is an enigmatic man, who wears a mask to hide his disfigured face. After the protagonist meets the charismatic Lightbringer, he decides to join the Freegyptian's cause to throw off the rule of the gods and to abandon his allegiance to Osiris and England. This is the stuff of British romantic fiction. One novel that I read over and over as a kid was Thomas Costain's The Black Rose. In that novel a young Anglo-Saxon lord flees Norman rule to win fame and fortune in Cathay, find true love, and return to England. A similar plot is working here.

However, this is not to be interpreted as a criticism of Lovegrove's novel. If you like historical adventure stories, with a touch of the British Empire, à la Kipling and Costain, then this book is for you. Additionally, Lovegrove follows the Aristotelian verities throughout to create a well-written, tightly constructed novel.

The only criticism that I have of the novel is that the gods receive short shrift. However, they are so annoying in their childish displays that, ultimately, I was glad to be rid of them.

In the final analysis, The Age of Ra is a tightly-crafted novel, loyal, to the Aristotelian verities, a strong narrative, with well-developed central characters, and a nod to British adventure stories of the forties and fifties.

No comments:

Post a Comment