Brent Hayward's Filaria is a rarity, a novel-length science fiction debut published by a small press. Novel-length SF has, until recently, had little to do with the millennial boom in small press publishing, for all that more experimental fantasy and the resurgent horror genre have benefited from it. Discovering that Filaria incorporates elements of horror into its SF, and has a somewhat experimental structure, is thus not surprising. Equally unsurprising, for readers familiar with contemporary small press works, is discovering that the book is in fact rather good. What is surprising is discovering that Filaria is good because it handles the basics of entertaining storytelling so well, balancing plot, character, setting, prose, and pacing, while encompassing core themes of both SF and horror. The few places where the novel falters are likewise issues of balance.
Filaria is not only Hayward's debut novel, but when published in 2008 it was the first release from Canada's ChiZine Publications, an offshoot of the ChiZine online magazine (they've since published several more volumes). Hayward, who had previously published short fiction with ChiZine, was born in England, educated in Canada, and employed—as of the book's publication—in Poland. I don't know at what point he wrote Filaria, but it is perhaps noteworthy that the movement of all the novel's characters is away from home and towards the unknown, and a core indicator of this movement is the redefinition of the familiar that is often experienced by travelers in foreign lands.
Familiarity is very much the issue as Filaria opens. Young Phister has nearly failed to recognize a power outlet because it is on the unfamiliar side of the "hostile halls" he and his drug-addicted old companion McCreedy are searching, using an ancient electric cart equipped with a primitive, malfunctioning AI. These issues—driver side vs. passenger side confusion, unfamiliar power outlets, buggy GPS—are common enough for contemporary travelers, actual or armchair, that there is an immediate linkage: Phister's unfamiliarity with his circumstances is our own, establishing empathy; his world is ours. Then Phister begins to describe what for him is familiar. He and McCreedy search only by daylight, which is to say, when the day lights are on. Crystal Max, a girl gone missing from Phister and McCreedy's tribe and the object of their search, was "at seventeen—spotty and pale, toothless and bald—[ . . . ] the most beautiful girl Phister had ever known" (p. 16). And the hall they search "might have been almost familiar [ . . . ] How far did the world extend anyhow? Hallways and more of these deserted hallways, changing subtly, going on forever" (pp. 9, 11).
Just what the immense multilevel edifice is that encloses Phister and his fellows constitutes one of the minor mysteries of Filaria. The initial impression is of a Gene Wolfe novel, a Whorl-like generation starship or a tower on a dying Urth; or perhaps a VanderMeerian Veniss, the run-down underbelly of a high tech city-state . The Wolfe evocation in particular only heightens when Phister and McCreedy encounter an effusive character who seems a cross between a priest and a playwright. His play, about a mythical Engineer, conflates religion, history, and foreshadowing—of which there is plenty throughout the first chapter, and beyond. At 227 pages, Filaria is a relatively brief novel by contemporary genre standards, but Hayward's writing has the density of a good short story. Rereading is not necessary for comprehension, but it can be rewarding to see how every word has dimensions of plot, mood, and theme; how innocuous phrases gain the power of prophesy when the full story is known.
Three new point-of-view characters are introduced to complement Phister in the following three chapters. Deidre is the scientifically-inclined daughter of an agricultural administrator called the Orchard Keeper. From the lush, brightly-lit parklands where she nets butterflies for study, to the sophisticated, boyish AI that assists her, the distance between her upper-tier life and Phister's lower-level world is emphasized. The next character we meet, Mereziah, has an interstitial existence as an inhabitant of a vast elevator shaft between levels, where it is his job to handle elevator routing for travelers. An unusual occurrence spurs him, at the twilight of a long and stationary life, to abandon his post and seek the fabled upper level of the complex. And Tran so Phengh is the story's everyman, a fisherman content with a middling life on a middling level until his wife falls ill and he determines to beseech the faltering god of his lake for aid and answers.
Each of these characters is framed by a characteristic prose style. Mereziah's sections are appropriately internal, while Tran so's are highly dialogue-driven, often filled with the humor of Tran so's ordinary concerns butting up against the stranger inhabitants of this land. And as we make the initial switch between Phister and Deidre's points of view, we trade the low, earthy, decadently desperate language of Phister's world for the high, decadently controlled, almost childishly over-precise diction of Deidre's:
McCreedy took a crumbling bite, and another, and another, passing only broken remains across to Phister. [ . . . ] Young Phister stuffed his face. Crumbs fell from his lips and his dry toothless gums as the car moved once more.
* * *
[Deidre] woke intentionally during the night, dressed silently in darkness and descended to the plantations long before her esteemed father had even entertained thoughts of his morning's ablutions. (p. 26)
As the narrative cycles through these characters and their journeys through the edifice's structure, so the structure of Filaria is revealed. There are four sections in the novel, each of which incorporates a cycle through the four main characters: sixteen segments of story overall. Each segment involves a character visiting a new level; the only time a level is visited twice is in the first and the final segments. Movement between levels takes place off-stage, lending each segment a distinct, compartmentalized flavor. The four main characters never meet, but several secondary characters cross over to connect the narratives. Discovering how these and other constraints play out lends a bit of Oulipo-style fun to the novel, something not often seen in SF. The story of Filaria is actually fairly simple, and will offer few surprises for many readers. What the structure does is provide delight in both the manner the story is revealed, and in the way the structure supplements the other aspects of its telling. The repeating pattern of the structure echoes the sense Filaria evokes of repeated cycles of human civilization. And the choice of structural constraints builds a thematic expression of the story's setting: immense, but also planned and artificial; a world constrained unto itself, a high-tech Gormenghast; a network that can't quite connect; a place of diversity that, several generations in, has devolved to become only degrees of separation between everyone in the complex.
What all the inter-level travel and character reappearances also produce is a frequent sense of redefinition within Filaria—for both the characters and the reader. As readers, we are privy in a way the characters are often not to redefinitions of motivation and identity. At the same time, expectations are used against us—everything from our expectations of a father's concern for a daughter, to our expectations of upper-level management, to our expectations of language itself, what words mean.
[Deidre] was pointing to an image of an extinct flying beast known as a Steller's Jay. "What about this thing? It says here it's a bird. A real bird. Sitting on its nest. [ . . . ] It doesn't look anything like your bluebirds or your redbirds." (pp. 138-139)
In its extreme form, Hayward's use of redefinition means that when one character is lifted up to the novel's version of heaven by angels and is deposited in a new Garden of Eden, it is not any divine hierarchy that is conveyed, but the measure of humanity (although Hayward does have fun with the notion of a serpent whispering in the ear). This is where the Wolfe evocation stops: there is in Filaria none of the literalized hierarchy of the world, the sense that the higher exists to serve as an example for the lower, that is so characteristic of Wolfe's writing.
Character goals are also subject to redefinition. By the book's end, each character has found what they were originally searching for—but not what they expected to find. Young Phister begins the story lost, looking for his home, and in a sense he finds it. Deidre, who sees herself as a scientist, ends closest of anyone to gaining the outside perspective of a scientist, but with a role-reversing twist on her initial studies. Mereziah does journey to the fabled upper level; and significantly, he finally gets to dwell for a time on a level, rather than between them. And Tran so does find medicine for his wife, although amidst the decline of the edifice that surrounds him, it is questionable how much this will matter. Indeed, another excellence of Filaria is that Hayward supplies just enough information for a reader to believe they can piece together what will happen after the novel's ending—while also being aware that another reader might define the ending very differently.
This open-ended duality is characteristic of Filaria. The novel dances on either side of the absolute neutrality of idealized pure science—and thus, of pure science fiction. Science, in the common conception, offers no special place for humans. We're one of many species on one of many planets in a universe that seems to be mostly deserted and does indeed extend very, very far. This can lend a wholly rational yet horrific element to science fiction, centered on the fragility of humanity against this uncaring universe, and the ways, kind and unkind, that our species has evolved to maintain itself against that fragility. That the edifice in which Filaria takes place is never named helps give the book's proceedings this universal aspect; it becomes a representation of humanity's urge to create and the inevitable decline of such creations in the face of entropy. This is akin to horror as John Clute wants it, where amnesia is lifted, what is revealed is exactly how hostile the universe is and how ruinous our touch upon it, and most of our heroes (such as they are) end with their personhood in bondage to this truth. Filaria is, in this light, especially horrific because there is no external threat, nothing (contra Clute) supernatural. The spotlight is front and center on human nature: how tenuous the human species is, the things we do that compromise our own chances, and the self-destroying roles we force individuals to play in our fight for survival.
And yet, this in turn leads directly to the optimistic side of Filaria: the idea that the science of our technology and the science of our biology may both work to carry us into the future. A recurring theme of Filaria is that as individuals and as a species we possess a highly opportunistic drive to survive, that the irrationality behind notions of hope, purpose, and personal achievement, as well as love and lust, will lead us to explore even the flimsiest of chances that may serve as a lifeline for the species. The edifice of Filaria is itself an example of this: it is a creation, the story suggests, more of vanity than of need. And Tran so, as noted, is perhaps the most successful of the novel's protagonists—not because of his moral qualities, his love of his wife (he admits he no longer loves her) or his faithfulness (he stops to dally with a robotic maid), but because his quest is all he has left. His refusal to give up, his digging for clues in even the most absurd and coincidental of situations, leads him on a traditional hero's journey to the underworld that here is stripped of metaphorical content (not least because we know this underworld, via Phister it is where we began). Hayward is again taking common forms of story, removing the supernatural elements that supply moral content, and leaving them as raw statements of human nature. Tran so's tale in this sense provides a thematic counterpoint to the novel's horrific aspects, and an echo of its optimism: the weight of the drive to continue, regain health, reproduce—either as a mated pair or as a species.
Where Filaria can feel a bit awkward is when it loses this balance of species-level horror and optimism, trading it for a rather dated and sensationalized style of personal horror based on female sexual peril—in several senses of the phrase. The most egregious example involves the resolution of Deidre's story: she is singled out for unique personal peril because she is capable of reproduction. Meanwhile, Mingh straw, a woman Deidre meets, is rejected (shortly after mocking Deidre's naivety and virginity) because her work as a prostitute has rendered her infertile. Tran so's dying wife, we learn, is also a prostitute; the girl to whom Phister lost his virginity died of plague; and an alluring, vampire-like woman named Cynthia becomes the primary antagonist of Phister. Cynthia explains to Phister, "I don't want things to get better here [ . . . ] I like things falling apart" (p. 134) and promptly tries to seduce him. There is certainly a long history in fiction of the breeder/whore duality of women's roles that Hayward is working with , roles that map to the biological and social dimensions of his story. And I don't think Hayward is completely unaware of the problems with this very conservative rendering of the male gaze: there's a scene where Mereziah, having saved Crystal Max, tries to claim a kiss and is soundly rebuffed for his presumption of entitlement. However this is the one area where it feels, with a few exceptions, like Hayward held to the pulpish, now-clichéd norms of story that Filaria otherwise modernizes, embellishes, and (ultimately) transcends.
The problem with this isn't only the negative portrayal of female sexuality—that sex is either damaging to women, or, for a few strong women, that their sexuality is perilous to men. It is that this portrayal, most notably in the situation involving Deidre, doesn't work within the story. Taken as horror, Deidre's predicament is wholly based on affect rather than the colder horror Hayward creates elsewhere. Yet it's an affect that wears its history on its sleeve: one can almost see the mustached man dressed in black tying the helpless damsel to the train tracks. That silliness undermines the portrayal as a serious attempt at connecting the two types of horror, the personal and the species-level. Taken as SF, this is only undermined further: given the situation and the technology available, the focus on Deidre specifically and on her ability to conceive is absurd. One might suggest that what Hayward is aiming for with Filaria is more akin to VanderMeer's Veniss Underground, where the tropes and props of SF are used to create mood and theme, but without any real desire to create a work that functions at the rational level of SF proper. But Filaria, unlike Veniss, seems to want to be understood as SF. Hayward offers a great many hints and explanations of the hows and whys of his creation; and while VanderMeer's Veniss is one of many cities in its world, Filaria's edifice is the world to its inhabitants, an ant farm-like microcosm held up for our observation. It is precisely this attempt to grasp the world as a totality that has become one of the core projects of modern SF.
What saves Filaria is that there's simply so much else going on, so much else the novel does right, that it becomes fairly easy (for this reviewer at least) to look past these issues and judge the work on the whole positively. Here, too, the novel is aided by its structure. That the book is so highly segmented makes it easy to dismiss a lesser segment without completely losing the thread of the story; that the segmentation results in four separate endings makes it hard to focus on just one impression of theme or character. So one can appreciate the structure and all it does for the novel; one can appreciate the density of the work, how so much of the book's themes are reflected in so many smaller details; one can appreciate the varied prose styles Hayward employs; one can appreciate the mix of beloved contemporary and classical influences, how Hayward isn't shy about evoking them but in a way that responds to their conversation rather than being slavishly derivative; one can appreciate the book's humor, which pops up in surprising ways in surprising places; and most of all, one can appreciate all of these things elegantly working together, bound in a single volume.
At a time when novels that are carbon copies of an author's previous work and pastiches banged out due to contractual obligations have been short-listed for major genre awards, it is immeasurably refreshing to encounter a book that feels carefully yet ambitiously wrought to maximize the potential of its project. This is not to suggest that Filaria is (or rather, was) award-worthy, but the book is a reminder that this mixture of care and ambition marks a useful baseline for what we expect of fiction. Filaria is not a work that dazzles with new ideas, rather it impresses by deploying a greater set of storytelling techniques than many better-known works, and in so doing renews the sense of wonder associated with familiar concepts of SF and horror. The result is a novel that is entertaining in the commonly understood, page-turning sense, without fatally insulting the intelligence or the aesthetics of a cultivated reader. Filaria is a short book whose movements occur in a tightly enclosed space, that nonetheless manages to capture a great deal of the horror and the hope of human endeavor.
 I first saw the writer and poet Daniel Ausema suggest the comparison between Filaria and Jeff VanderMeer's Veniss Underground in an online discussion between he, the author Hayward, and myself. Unless otherwise noted all other ideas in this review are my own, although several were first articulated less formally in the above discussion. [return]
 For example, Clute in his talk "Physics for Amnesia: Horror Motifs in SF" traces the breeder/whore duality in SF/horror hybrids from City of Endless Night by Milo Hastings (1920) through Swastika Night (1937) by Katherine Burdekin (writing as Murray Constantine) and into other dystopian works. More recently, there is I think an echo of it in the Handmaids and Jezebels of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985). [return]
Matt Denault (email@example.com) has never lost the seriousness of a child at play—especially when it comes to reading. He lives just outside Boston.
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