Last Legends of Earth
by A.A. Attanasio
I won’t say this book is what every science fiction novel ought to be, but it’s pretty near the ideal sf book as far as I’m concerned. It’s extravagant, epic, and consistently inventive, not only in terms of setting, and not only in terms of how the setting affects the characters, but in the way in which the setting is described — the language, the sentence structure, the way of thinking. It’s a book that, to me, fulfills every promise the idea of science fiction suggests.
The novel’s set in the far future, long after the death of Earth and the solar system. An alien from a subatomic world, Gai, creates a new star system in the galaxy as a means of luring and trapping her people’s enemies, the zotl, who will come to the new star system to feed on its population; it’s a desperation tactic in a genocidal war. To draw the zotl, Gai creates bait to people her star system — human beings. But not new humans; these are the spirits of humans from the past, reincarnated as pawns in cosmic war. The book follows the war’s progress, but also follows the exploits of a pilot named Ned O’Tennis and his lover Chan-Ti Beppu, who are torn apart by circumstance and struggle to find their way back to each other across time and space.
The scope of the book is tremendous, covering thousands of years of history and fifteen planets (more, in fact). It’s both linear and non-linear, which sounds confusing, but works smoothly in practice; it’s an example of the understated cleverness with which Attanasio has assembled his text. “Assembled” is perhaps not the right word, but does hint at the shifting points-of-view in the novel; in a way, it’s put together out of the stories of the many characters who wander through its pages, with Ned and Chan-ti only the most notable of several recurring figures. Everyone has their own story, here. More: everyone is a legend. One of the last legends of Earth.
The book moves easily from flying cities to primitive hunter-gatherer communities to the point where high technology and myth fuse. Attanasio makes all these things, all his wildly disparate materials, cohere into something with character all its own; the book is a true original.
Is it the best sf book I’ve ever read? Probably not; it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, which as far as I’m concerned is one of the greatest books I’ve ever come across in any form. But we’re talking here about degrees of greatness. I think it’s the finest book I’ve read this year so far, and I look forward to working my way through the rest of Attanasio’s work. For me, this is one of the best things about the book; not only is it great in itself, but it’s the first book by Attanasio I’ve ever read — meaning I have a new author to follow, a new bibliography to work my way through. It’s a treat to discover a writer like this, and a pleasure to find that there are more books out there that can give these kinds of pleasures.