In James White's "The Trouble with Emily" (1958), the god-like doctors of the Space Hospital persecute and torture a neo-brontosaurus into developing telekinetic powers, knowing that this will be its species' only hope of survival in the event of planetary disaster. In Jon George's Zootsuit Black, humans do the same thing to themselves.
The world may be about to end, but Scott Anderson is competing in an interactive Big Brother scenario. In this version of the game, contestants go about their daily lives spied on by cameras which they can choose to switch off (although points are deducted for every five seconds of dead air). Doing it to yourself will be a recurrent thread of the novel. Scott is not doing it for the money or the celebrity, however; he wants a platform on which to expose the American fascist Pascal Toluene, a shadowy figure who never quite resolves. However, Scott's antics—which involve many visits to ancient archaeological sites which he then tour-guides for his watchers (and in the most unlikely twist to the entire novel, they don't switch off)—are interrupted by his regular flashes into scenes from the second world war, sometimes as an RAF bomber and sometimes as a member of the Czech resistance. As the flashes become more real, he realises that he is taking the parts of both of his grandparents.
Scott's friends are TC, Ben, Jenny, and Jake. Of them all, only Jake has a story of his own. Jake is an American working on cloned mice and group behaviour while flashing into re-enactments of dragon-killing folk tales. Jenny is a wispy outline of a character, a new age, pagan type, there for Scott to fall in love with and get irritated by (no, I can't work that one out either); and TC is suffering from trauma after her mother was killed in a car crash, in which she was not driving and the driver had apparently disappeared. This is our first clue to what is going on, because when TC takes Scott to her mother's bedroom, it's clearly a room for two people, and neither of them can remember either there being a second person or who that person might have been. TC cannot remember who her father was. Neither can anyone else.
The book is studded with these disappearances. Did you notice that I didn't explain who Ben is? He might be Jenny's brother, but no one really registers his disappearance, and Jenny is left to puzzle over the young man in the family photograph, and the birth certificate she has found in the house.
As Scott and Jake work through their flashes and gather the evidence of others' experiences, Jake continues working on his mice until, three days after they begin to behave like a hive mind, they all disappear. This is the cue for Jake to declare a messianic complex and explain to the world—through the open channel Scott acquires when he wins the contest—that humanity is redeveloping the mind-talents it abandoned as it acquired intelligence, but that these can only be borne by those who do not hate each other. And they have minutes in which to do it. The book concludes with Scott carrying out the mission his flashes have led him towards—with a nifty bit of time travel, the killing of the Nazi leader Richard Heydrich, and then the transferral into Heydrich's body of Pascal Toleune so that at a later date Toleune will experience that same death—and a sort of negative secular rapture in which those not at one with themselves and the universe disappear from the earth.
This retreat to mysticism undercut George's first book, Faces of Mist and Flame (2004), as well. This is not because mysticism does not belong in SF (it has a long and honourable tradition) but because in George's work it seems to override the scientific. In Faces of Mist and Flame a time machine was superseded by astral projection. In Zootsuit Black the anti-science protestors seem to be in harmony with Jake's argument that these are pre-civilisation powers—they displace the ability to read—despite Jake's last-minute assertion that they indicate a higher stage of human evolution.
There are other themes which run across the two novels: Scott's actions take place in response to a perceived betrayal by family, a betrayal deepened when the truth comes out. Like Serena in Faces of Mist and Flame, he is a goal-oriented product, brought up focused on a single target, and like Phoenix in that book he is a child who honours his grandfather, not his father. Both works are embedded in the mythology and hagiography of the Second World War, and both are concerned with a porous and permeable world.
Zootsuit Black left me unsatisfied but intrigued. There are overtones in George's work of very early Chris Priest, and George clearly shares his interest in virtual reality/world slippage as a scalpel to the psyche. There are hints too of Joe Haldeman's ordinary Joes, although George needs to work on the distinctiveness of his characters' voices, and at times also a touch of Hemingway. What is lacking, oddly, is a sense of place: although Scott describes many landscapes to his audience, none of them bite. So that in the end George's work is oddly blurred. But interesting.
Farah Mendlesohn is the editor of Foundation.