I confess that I occasionally read the front page stories of somethingawful.com, where Zack “Geist Editor” Parsons is a regular contributor. I usually read his pieces, which include things like “William Gibson Correctly Predicts the Internet of 2013” and “The Overly Optimistic Futurist’s Guide to Dating in the Post-Singularity“. They’re wonderfully weird, and usually very good pastiches of other writing styles. So, when I came across Liminal States in the bookstore, I was understandably excited to pick it up. Fortunately, it mostly lived up to my expectations.
For those of you who may be interested in the book, beware, there are spoilers ahead. To make my recommendation notes short: While the story draws off a taproot of science fiction and horror, its three acts are presented as different genres: western, detective, and thriller. My only real problem with it is that parts of the book are slow reading (especially towards the end of the second act). Otherwise, the prose is technically excellent and occasionally beautiful. A solid story, read it if you’ve got the time for a 400-odd page novel.
The trajectory of Liminal States essentially mirrors that of the liminal period, the twilight zone between the ways of the old world and the new. The idea of the liminal period was first developed in Arnold van Gennep’s The Rites of Passage in 1908. The liminality period was divided into three parts by van Gennep, and each act in the book parallels the transition through each of these periods.
The setup to the story is very complicated, and to save my breath explaining it, I’ll go for the short, short summary: two men, Warren Groves (a child murderer turned stereotypical masculine Old West sheriff) and Gideon Long (long-suffering son of an abusive mining magnate) end up with their lives completely entwined with one another after becoming immortal. The key to immortality in this case is a milky fountain in a cliffside dwelling, guarded by a grasshopper idol. Long finds immortality willfully, if accidentally, while Groves is literally dragged kicking and screaming to it (by Long, no less).
The baptism into immortality is set against a simmering feud between Long and Groves, which is set against a somewhat overly melodramatic background: Long attempted to knock off a train for the sake of cementing his key to the inheritance his father is soon to leave him, and secretly, Long is trying to woo Groves’ wife Annie away from him. Groves and a posse set out to stop the burglary, even though Annie is in the midst of childbirth. While Groves and his gang foil the robbery, he returns home to find Annie dead. Long, mortally wounded in the burglary, wanders into the desert where he eventually ends up finding immortality. When both men find out about Annie’s death, Long blames Groves, while Groves blames himself. Long takes vengeance by forcing Groves to become immortal as well.
Anyway, back to the concept of the liminality event. The opening act covers the preliminal rite stage. This stage consists of an abrupt break with previous habits through a metaphysical ritual. Here, the break with the old normal is accomplished through both a physical and a metaphorical death – Long and Groves both succumb to their wounds as they fall into the pool, and although they come back to life, they’ve left nearly every shred of their humanity behind. The tendency of the pool to create extra copies also signals the metaphorical death of their individuality. Each clone is technically independent of one another, although they draw from a shared (and branching) set of memories, but each shares a common personality and generally works towards a similar goal.
The next stage is the liminal rite, in which the group creates a tabula rasa, a blank slate in which the group realizes that previous life experiences can no longer be applied to guide their futures. This step involves breaking down the individual through the use of scripted rituals led by an elder “master of ceremonies”. An interlude between the first and second acts is a performance of a liminal rite, in which Groves’ and Long’s clones agree on a set of rules regarding the use of the pool and rules for their lives to prevent the pool from becoming widely known. A Judge is appointed from one of the Groves clones to enforce the rules.
The second and third acts of Liminal States are primarily concerned with the final stage, the postliminal rites. In this stage, initiates are reintegrated into society as a new being. While Groves is content to play by the rules set out during the liminal stage, Long (now using the name Harlan Bishop) is intent on subverting these rules as much as possible for his own gain. The second act depicts Bishop slowly bringing the Groves clones under his control for his personal use, whether it be foot soldiers, armed guards, or maintenance men. To do so, he has been cleverly subverting the rules – passing on his money to his “son”, a clone which he should technically not be in contact with. By doing so, he amasses greater wealth over time, along with massive government influence.
Warren Groves and Gideon Long serve as a beautiful study in contrasts. They have a similar upbringing, sons of abusive fathers. Their ways of dealing with the situation show up in their characters, even after a century of being immortal. Groves murders his father after one beating too many and flees into the night. Long quietly simmers and plots his revenge, which entails reducing his target to the lowest of lows and rubbing their face in the fact that they are nothing anymore. I’d argue that Groves a pastiche of bootstrappers from the 1870s to the present day, while Long is a stereotype of the nouveau riche over the same time frame. One could make the argument that each type of man symbolizes the divide between the lower and middle classes and the upper class.
Case in point: after becoming immortal, the two find that the pool spits out an exact copy of themselves, complete with memories and temperament, at irregular intervals. After both men have 9 copies of themselves walking around, they form a committee that sets a list of rules that aim to keep the pool’s existence a secret. The set of rules appear equitable at the time of the agreement, but over time the application of the rules slowly tilts in Long’s favor, eventually allowing Long to use Groves clones as a personal slave army, all the while allowing him to operate the pool openly as a business venture.
Bishop’s goal is ostensibly the betterment of humanity – by being able to oversee projects spanning over a century he can accomplish things that normal humans can’t. However, Bishop has a growing hedonistic and authoritarian impulse: by the end of the second act he’s shown using gangs to enforce his vision of the future on Los Angeles, and in the third act he’s more interested in keeping control of his power and wealth rather than bettering humanity. I’d argue that this mirrors the rapid adoption of Randian philosophy among the monied during the 20th century – a transition from the noblesse oblige among an aristocratic upper class to the FY;GM attitude that is commonly seen in the upper class of today.
An interesting stylistic choice about Liminal States is that each act of the story serves as a self-contained genre story, one which reflects the popular culture writing of the time period it is set in. Act I is set in the 1870s, and concerns typical plot-lines that you’d encounter in the fiction of the era: train-robberies, striking it rich as a prospector, unrequited or doomed love, and so on. Act II is set in 1951 and is told in a hardboiled detective format, while making use of other themes, such as a WWII veteran coming to terms with his war experiences, or an attempt to rescue a damsel in distress from a nuclear horror. Act III is set in modern times, and while the main plot backdrop is a doomsday thriller, it also references modern concerns such as rampant drug abuse, an overly militarized society, and horrific experiments with science.
To be quite honest, I’m not exactly why the book is structured in this way, other than the fact that it keeps the story fresher than it would be had it been told in the same style throughout. The best I can think of is that the change in genre is supposed to mirror the movement of Groves and Long through the liminality period, but the correlation isn’t exactly one to one. Interestingly, Liminal States is a genre-bender on a chapter-by-chapter basis, but each act has an entirely different set of genres being blended together.
I think the highest praise I can give this book is that there’s a lot of ideas that I could go on about, delivered in a fairly readable package. One one level it’s fun as a science fiction book, but on another level it’s also a nice piece of literary fiction. The prose is highly readable and it’s a fairly tight story, although it leaves numerous pieces of the plot dangling as a bait to read further. My biggest complaint is that occasionally the book gets too clever, and Parsons kind of slows down and draws awareness to just how clever he’s being. It slows the book down in a few places, but thankfully those places are short and well separated.
Liminal States is one of those books that rewards the alert reader. It has the right mix of world-building and plot progression and switches back and forth between them very smoothly. Overall, this is a very good effort by Parsons, especially as a first-time effort at a full story. I’m already looking forward to his next novel, whatever it might be.