Sunday, June 28, 2009

Zimmer, Exodus Gate (2009)

Stephen Zimmer, The Exodus Gate. Seventh Star Press, 2009. Pp. 580. ISBN 978-0-6152-6747-0. $19.95.

Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy

In Stephen Zimmer's novel The Exodus Gate Benedict Darwin, the host of a radio talk show devoted to the paranormal, gets access to a "virtual reality" system that has not yet hit the market from a friend of his in the employ of "Babylon Technologies." He tries it out at home, playing an RPG set in an earlier, antediluvian era, during which Darwin encounters a pack of giant, intelligent wolves, the "An-Ki." Speaking with them he starts to wonder if this is not, after all, more than an elaborate program, the technology involved something more than VR. This being that kind of story, his suspicions are soon proven correct, and he finds himself drawn into an ages-old struggle between Good and Evil ("Adonai" and "Diabolos, the Shining One") in which the human players are lining up to play their roles as the shadow of a One-World government on the side of Evil looms large.

As this summary implies, the story is at its core a version of the End Times narrative which attracted so much attention when Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye's published their mega-selling Left Behind series. It is a thinly veiled one, however, the names of people, places and other such items very slightly changed, while being in all other respects nearly identical. (The United States is UCAS, Germany is Germania, Russia is Muscovy, China is Mandaria, etc.; the F-22 fighter jet has become the I-22; etc.) All of this makes it far too obvious to be regarded as an allegory in the manner of C.S. Lewis (an important influence on the author, as he acknowledges in an interview at the Something Wicked blog), which suggests other rationales: the taking of liberties with crucial story elements, the subversion of a conventional take on the material.

As it happens, an unconventional reading of the Great Flood is central to the story, specifically the idea that it was meant to wash away the giants mentioned in the sixth chapter of Genesis (giants who, in Zimmer's telling of the story, still have their role to play in Armageddon). In crafting the tale Zimmer also draws not only on this reading of the Bible, but a number of other religious traditions, not all of them easily connectable with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Additionally, while the book does not come across as a shot in the "culture wars" in the manner of John Shirley's 2006 novel The Other End (in his own words, an "unapologetically partisan" book aimed at reclaiming this territory from right-wing fundamentalists), being more politically ambiguous (at times, it even gives off a "black helicopter" vibe) and more theologically conventional as well (even with the talking wolves), the author does step outside safe territory. In particular Zimmer works in post-September 11 anxieties about the motivations behind the "War on Terror," and the hollowing out of a U.S. economy living off foreign-financed debt in a way much less in evidence during the tech boom years. His particular handling of this combination of elements also makes the book an easier sell with "Nine-Eleven" now "Seven-Four," and the Patriot Act now the "Guardian Act."

Of course, while the theological and political touches of the story are well worth commenting on, the book is first and foremost an epic fantasy--the first part of the mult-volume "Rising Dawn" saga Zimmer envisages. To his credit, the mix of ideas he brings together has its interest, though the execution is far from faultless. His prose and characterizations are on the whole unremarkable, and at times rather flat. (The An-Ki, certainly, have little trouble stealing the show from the humans.) It does not help, either, that many members of his rather large cast of characters are not put to much use in this 566 page book. Additionally, there are few immediately significant events after the mid-point of the novel. It might be said that too much of the rather large book is devoted to setting up what will happen in later installments.

Nonetheless, Zimmer knows how to keep the reader turning the pages, and delivers a sufficiently effective foundation for a compelling enough bigger story that he earns some benefit of the doubt.

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