Sunday, April 18, 2010

Book Review: Harbinger by Jack Skillingstead

I have to admit to my general disinterest in tales of immortality, which is absolutely a product of the cultural obsession with all manner of vampiric critters, glittering or otherwise. But when an author takes on the astonishingly difficult task of trying to tell a story through the eyes of a character who is essentially immortal starting from the moment of discovery and ending many hundreds of years later, it's hard to ignore.
Harbinger follows Ellis Herrick, a teenager who has lost his mother and brother and who has a crush on his neighbor Nichole. But when a serious car crash dismembers him and puts him in the hospital, he discovers that he has an astonishing power: the ability to regrow any part of his body. Ellis, however, isn't the one most interested in this turn of events. Langley Ulin sees Ellis as the fountain of youth and wants to use the young man to keep himself alive forever. What follows is a decades long tale of Ellis' life on Earth, in space, and across the stars, a life filled with love, vengeance, pain, and wonder.
As a love story, Harbinger functions in a most unusual manner. The relationship between Nichole and Ellis is rocky and complicated, not just because of Ellis' rather immature and confused actions, but also because of the fact that he doesn't age. The way Ellis deals with this problem differs from other novels of this kind: he moves around throughout life, never fixed to a position. The somewhat cosmopolitan (or rhizomatic, if you want to get theoretical) nature of Ellis' character is something to take note of as you read, because the conclusion of the novel directly comments upon this issue.
Interesting too is how Ellis goes through life. Due to his condition, he is sought after by all manner of curious people, from those who want to use him as a medical experiment to those who are interested in telling his story, and so on. But Ellis, as previously mentioned, never stays fixed to any of these positions, sometimes on purpose, and other times due to various catalysts in his life (death is a prominent one). It might be difficult to understand at first, because he makes a lot of decisions that would seem stupid, but when put in the perspective of one being immortal and intentionally and unintentionally stuck in a position of independence by his "freak" nature, his life starts to make sense. There is a veritable gold mine of interesting analyses to be made about Ellis and the world that Skillingstead has set out to design here (perhaps someone will take on that task one day).
Ellis is not hopeless, however. His character progresses in unusual ways, but he also acts as a particularly effective mirror for looking at ourselves. You could argue that Ellis lives many lives, and that each one is a reflection of our mortality. Like Ellis, we only get a handful of shots to pursue our greatest passions, and while Ellis certainly has more opportunities than most of us, he still suffers from his failures, because nothing is forever. Perhaps, in a way, by looking at Ellis, we can begin to understand why we are mortal in the first place, because to live through all that Ellis does would seem like a nightmare. Maybe I'm reaching, but it is something worth thinking about.
Skillingstead has absolutely hit the nail on the head with Harbinger. While not a perfect novel, the very fact that Skillingstead has taken on such a daunting narrative task and succeeded in creating an engaging novel is worth noting. Harbinger never drags and each jump forward feels like a natural progression in terms of the narrative itself, which produces a kind of episodic, connected storyline leading to an uncertain conclusion. Perhaps Harbinger's greatest fault is that uncertainty; the conclusion leaves quite a lot of questions and does boggle the mind, which I found particularly problematic considering the clarity of everything preceding it--we understand everything from the motivations of the characters, the world built around them, and so on up until the end. I suspect that some aspect of this uncertainty was intentional, maybe as a way of trying to express the natural confusion one has when exposed to the cultures of people outside of one's generation (think of your great-grandparents trying to grasp the rapid-pace world of the Internet). Still, there's much to love about Harbinger, and I would recommend it for readers and fans of lighter flavors of science fiction.
If you'd like to learn more about Harbinger, please check out Fairwood Press. Jack Skillingstead can be found on his website.


SQT said...

Immortality as subject matter has always been interesting to me. You're right in that right now it's predominately fixated on vampires or other popular monsters, so it's interesting that 'Harbinger" steer away from that.

I always liked the old "Highlander" series, however cheesy that might be, because it shows how different people react to the idea of living far longer than everyone else. Makes you wonder how many lifetimes you'd have to live before you started to get it right.

S.M.D. said...

The cool thing about Harbinger is that its immortality concept is quite fantastic, but the narrative itself takes us into the future. It's like a wonderful little mix of SF and F.