Subtitled "A Planetary Romance," Chris Roberson's Paragaea is billed as a giddy homage to the pulp adventure story. As source material for this fabulous world, Roberson cites the triptych of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom, the world of Mongo from the Flash Gordon series, and the Saturday morning sci-fi adventures of the Marshall family in Land of the Lost. He gives the tale a modernist flair by inserting a dashing sailor wrenched from a 19th-century English Royal Navy boat and a Russian cosmonaut who was shot into space in 1964. Throw in an exiled jaguar man (who, like the others, has been cast adrift from the "world" he knows), a continent-spanning journey, and more than a handful of references—pop, pulp, historical, mythological, and literary—and this has all the ingredients of what should be an entertaining romp. Yet somehow, it isn't. Paragaea is like a whirlwind island tour: you hit all the tourist landmarks in an afternoon, and in the end all you've got is a camera full of fuzzy photographs and a lingering impression that you've missed all the good stuff.
Akilina "Leena" Chirikov is a Russian cosmonaut scheduled to be the second woman in space when she is chosen to pilot the Vostok 7 orbital. Lifting off from Baikonour in 1964, Leena barely manages one circuit of the globe before her craft falls through an anomaly in space. Well educated on the geography of our planet, she finds herself in orbit around a world she doesn't recognize and realizes she is no longer circling Earth. After a narrow escape from her capsule as it falls out of orbit, she finds herself on the banks of a large river, where she is quickly captured by jaguar men.
One of the metamankind that inhabit the massive continent of Paragaea, the jaguar men—known as the Sinaa—have fallen under the spell of the Black Sun Genesis, a nascent cult whose members believe that the wizard-kings of Atla are responsible for the creation of all the metamankind. Fortunately for Leena, she is rescued by a pair of travelers: the Royal Navy transplant, Hieronymus Bonaventure, and the exiled Sinaa prince, Balam. Doubly fortunate, both Bonaventure and Balam know English and, while Leena's skills are somewhat rusty, they are able to communicate with her.
This sort of conceit is regularly used in the pulps, where the intent is, after all, adventure, and not some lengthy diversion in which the hero or heroine spends sixteen weeks or so undergoing a cultural immersion. To his credit, though, Roberson does manage to get Leena such an immersion in a very natural manner; it's just too bad that she's already been written into a corner by that point and can't possibly notice anything beyond her myopic obsession with being accepted and loved by her motherland.
The bulk of Paragaea is spent traveling the length of the continent in an effort to find a way back to the Earth that Leena and Hieronymus know. Leena, a good child of Soviet brainwashing, believes it is her sole duty to report back to her superiors of the existence of this strange world. Orphaned as a young girl, she knows no family but the State and has no desire other than to please the political machinery that has given her a home (well, that's not entirely true; she does admit that her first love is flight, but that sort of raison d'être doesn't translate well as a plot device here). This faithfulness to the State (as well as Leena's ingrained Marxist beliefs) plays as a modernist affectation within the pulp framework, and while it is certainly a clever effort on Roberson's part, it falls flat. Much like Thomas Covenant in Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, who wastes entirely too much of the reader's time complaining about the "unreality" of the Land, Leena's insistence on returning to Mother Russia becomes a shrill one-note characterization that seems out of place in the adventurous pulp landscape.
Hieronymus, though, understands the basic principle of the pulps. "I left home to escape a studious life of boredom," he tells Leena, "and I will gladly accept any task that comes my way, so long as it means a bit of excitement" (p. 74). Balam too is equally ready to follow any course: "I am just keeping myself occupied, and my skills honed, until the day I can reclaim the throne of Sinaa . . ." What better companions could one ask for on a strange odyssey across an equally strange land? It's a perfect arrangement, marred only by Leena's refusal to look anywhere but to the next step in their never-ending quest to find her a way home.
Roberson's love for the pulps is readily apparent in his massive world-building. There are all manner of strange creatures, rich milieus, decadent cities, decaying civilizations, lost treasures, and strange technologies. The threesome have adventures on land, in the air, and on the sea; they cross swords with corrupt officials and zealous cult members; they investigate forgotten temples, hidden cities, and monolithic sanctuaries. They stumble upon, walk past, and run through nearly every pulp convention you can think of, and therein lies the ultimate frustration with this book. They never stop to really explore anything. They're just tourists on a race to the bottom of the world. Roberson is so busy "easter egging" us with his pulp knowledge that he never really gives us enough flavor on anything for it to become his own.
Part of the magic of the pulps was the continuation of the story: the hero wouldn't quite reach the goal that he or she sought. There would always be a final disaster or necessary choice that would keep the goal just out of reach. Much of the pulp adventure was the journey—the "goal," in some ways, is completely beside the point—and this was why we came back every week, every month, every year. We wanted to be part of the adventure. By closing the loop of Leena's story, Roberson lets us out of the pulp cycle. We aren't given a driving reason to come back. And Leena's affection for Hieronymus and Roberson's use of a climactic technique similar to the one used by Burroughs to pull John Carter away from Mars on more than one occasion notwithstanding, the overall thrust of both epilogues is resolution and conclusion. The tour is over, get off the boat, collect your postcards on the way out the door.
I like Paragaea—don't mistake my disappointment for derision of the place. I'd like to visit it again, and I wouldn't even mind Hieronymus and Balam as traveling companions. But I'd like the unguided tour: I'd like to spend a little more time in the shadow of the Oracular Forest of Keri-Leystall; I'd like to wander in the forest of Atrusia and search for Vorin's leather case; I'd like to know what happened to the Nonae; and I'd like to see Drift. But please, without Leena.
Mark Teppo lives in the Pacific Northwest, where he works on fiction while he is commuting and when people think he's gone off to the bathroom. He also writes for Igloo, Earplug, and OPi8.com. You may find him on the web at www.markteppo.com.