Somewhere inside Mark Budz's fourth novel, Till Human Voices Wake Us, there's a halfway decent short story trying to get out. It's the kind of puzzle story I'm generally fond of, laden with technical jargon (mostly of the invented variety) that slowly coalesces into a science fictional idea and maybe, if we're lucky, a plot. As a four-hundred-page novel, however, Till Human Voices Wake Us is bloated and soporific, its reliance on jargon a millstone around a not particularly strong neck. This isn't so much hard SF, as the front cover blurb eagerly assures us it is, as the inscrutable kind—and even worse, the kind that neither encourages nor rewards our efforts to puzzle it out.
Till Human Voices Wake Us unfolds in three alternating plotlines. In the first, which takes place in the near future, our protagonist is Rudi, an evangelical radio preacher. Several years ago Rudi was in an accident that left him brain damaged. During his long convalescence and rehabilitation he found God, and he now travels the American southwest in a beat-up van, spreading the word over the airwaves. Rudi's mission takes him to soup kitchens and shantytowns; his flock consists of the homeless and the dispossessed, junkies and mental patients whom he tries to help in spite of his own need for healing. He hears voices, which he tries to block out by lining his baseball cap with tinfoil, and is still haunted by the tragedies of his youth—the loss of his mother, sister, and grandmother (to jail, abandonment, and death, respectively) and a failed relationship with his childhood sweetheart.
The second plotline takes place in 1937 (or, as Budz puts it, "circa 1937," a puzzling affectation, as at various points in the novel it is stated that the events of this plotline take place precisely within that year). Benjamin Taupe is an architect in San Francisco who suffers from crippling headaches and deteriorating eyesight. An X-ray reveals these to be the preliminary symptoms of an inoperable brain tumor, and a despondent Benjamin is referred by his business partner to a faith healer, Madame Grurie. She offers him not life but the promise of an afterlife—a connection to his "higher self" and to the source of his soul, "the dimension where the awake part of your self lives" (p. 67).
The protagonist of the third plotline, which takes place in the far future, is Olavo. He is a "simunculus," a memory pattern that can exist in various and slightly different versions in both virtual and physical environments. Beings of his type are needed for long-term space exploration, and as his story begins he and his companions have been stranded by a cosmic event while orbiting the world they've been attempting to colonize. The accident has also left Olavo's memory pattern damaged, and as he attempts to reconstruct it, it becomes clear that he is linked to both Rudi and Benjamin, sharing their memories and perhaps even the essence of their souls.
Of the three plotlines, the most engaging is Rudi's. Though Budz does little to elevate Rudi above the cliché of the down-on-his-luck white-trash evangelical, there's something appealing about the character. He is open, affectionate, and entirely earnest in his efforts to save those less fortunate than himself (and there's a certain frisson nowadays to be had in a depiction of a Christian evangelical who is kind and compassionate). Most important, stuff happens to Rudi. He befriends Irene, a caustic, belligerent veteran of a future war with a knitting obsession. He's pursued by a woman who claims to be a documentary filmmaker but seems to know too much about him. He searches out his older sister, Linnea, a free spirit who abandoned him after the death of their grandmother, and tries to make peace with her. Through his interactions with these characters, Rudi emerges as a lost and pitiable young man trying to set his life in order, and though his depiction is rarely more than perfunctory, it is the closest the novel comes to a beating heart.
One might imagine that the doomed Benjamin would also elicit a reader's pity, but his story line is too slathered with Madame Grurie's New Age blatherings for his desperation to register. In fact, that desperation rarely makes an appearance. We're told that Benjamin is terrified of death, and even more so of dying with so little accomplished—he is only at the beginning of his career and has no wife, no relatives, no friends except for his business partner—but Budz doesn't work very hard to sell the depth of his despair.
"On the contrary," Madame Grurie said. "You can't wake up. That is your true problem. You proceed through life in a rigid, unvarying routine. You do exactly what is expected of you, by yourself and others. Always the same. You are like a machine—a marionette, if you will—content to go through the daily motions of life with no thoughts other than those you have been conditioned to have."
"I'm out of my element," [Benjamin] confessed. "I don't know what to do next with myself. I don't know where to turn."
"That's because you are a sleepwalker in this world. You think you are awake. But when you truly wake up, you will realize that what you thought was waking before was in actuality a kind of dream."
"How do I wake up, then?" Anything was better than the torment he'd endured since the X-ray results. (p. 66)
There has, however, been no torment. The Benjamin plotline segues directly from his being told the bad news by his doctor to his business partner sending him to Madame Grurie to this, the first meeting between them, and his overliteral, bland version of despair. It's hard to escape the conclusion that Budz is relying on his readers to do the heavy lifting, to imagine how they would feel if they learned that their life were going to end before it had truly begun, and attach those emotions to the character. Most of what passes for dialogue in this plotline is the repetitive droning of Madame Grurie, who goes on and on about making contact with the higher self and different dimensions but never connects this mumbo jumbo with reality. We the readers, who know we're reading a science fiction novel and that Benjamin is clearly linked to both Rudi and Olavo, know that Madame Grurie has to be onto something, but there's nothing inherently transcendent about her philosophy or the experiences Benjamin has under her tutelage.
The Benjamin plotline also fails in its attempts to create a sense of time and place, or rather in the lack of same. San Francisco has never been a less than distinctive city, and 1937—with the Depression still going strong and the Second World War just around the corner—must have had a flavor all its own. And yet there is hardly ever a sense that Benjamin is not our contemporary or that he lives in a city with a unique personality and style. If the Rudi plotline is mired in cliché, the Benjamin plotline can barely aspire to so much. It's as though the characters—Madame Grurie, Benjamin, his business partner, and the business partner's wife, with whom Benjamin falls in love (we know he's in love with her because Madame Grurie says so and because she's a woman of the right age group, but there's never any genuine emotion between the two characters)—were standing on an empty stage wearing nondescript costumes, with the author occasionally waving a placard that says "San Francisco, 1937" before the audience. One wonders why Budz bothered with the historical setting if he never planned to do anything with it.
The novel is supposed to come together in the Olavo plotline. It's here that Rudi and Benjamin overlap, here that the outcome of their suffering and searching is discovered, here that the science fictional mechanism driving the novel is revealed. It is also here, unfortunately, that the novel is smothered by Budz's reliance on jargon. Olavo's sole function is to act as the reader's intermediary as he investigates the nature of the accident that has stranded him and in the process reveal the novel's core idea. What this means, however, is that Olavo is not even as appealing as the stereotypical Rudi or the faintly sketched Benjamin. He and the characters he encounters are little more than mouthpieces. Their purpose is to tell us what's going on, which they do with excruciating slowness, putting off the inevitable revelation while Rudi searches for his sister and Benjamin listens to Madame Grurie repeat herself (the Olavo plotline is also padded with more of Rudi's memories from before his accident).
The back-cover blurb for Till Human Voices Wake Us inexplicably calls the novel a thriller. This blatant piece of misinformation only serves to draw attention to the fact that it is almost completely lacking in tension. We've read this story before and know that Rudi's, Benjamin's, and Olavo's story lines will eventually converge to a single point. As the characters are so forgettable and Budz's prose so indifferent, there's nothing left for us but to mentally hurry him on. For all of its problems, the greatest failure of Till Human Voices Wake Us is its flabbiness, which seems motivated by a conviction that it has a mind-shattering, exciting revelation to impart. Instead, like Madame Grurie, all it has to offer are tired platitudes. It attempts to substitute breadth for depth, and ends up failing at both.
Abigail Nussbaum (firstname.lastname@example.org) works as a software engineer in Tel Aviv, Israel. Her work has previously appeared in the Internet Review of Science Fiction and the Israeli SFF quarterly the Tenth Dimension. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.
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