Sunday, May 27, 2012

McRath, Aged Traveler of the First Expedition (2012)

Manni McRath, Aged Traveler of the First Expedition. Self-Published, 2012. Pp. c.50. ASIN B007LTM7IQ. $0.99.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Ostensibly, this short story in three chapters is a thought-map of a man’s mind as he faces the long, empty years of a deep space mission to a new planet. He appears to be latching future hopes on this planet, and as his ‘story’ continues, it seems that he has much thinking and worrying to do about the ethics of the mission, his crewmates, his position on the mission and his wider concerns with his position as a universal man. The mission takes, we are told, the better part of fifty years to travel, study and return to the home-world. Unfortunately, it feels like fifty years in the reading.

Biggest problems: confusingly presented character, repetitive, basically uninspired content and poor presentation.

I think McRath wanted to create as a platform a personality that is not ‘heroic’ but heroically humble, not ‘creative’ but technical, yet with the ability to have a faith. In this instance, a faith in alien presences. From this, there could develop a sort of religious hope of a better experience to come. But the main and only character voice (he has no name; let’s call him Bob for simplicity) remains intrinsically undefined, despite the repeated statements of personality traits laid out for our view, because the descriptions are not solid or credible. The writing seems to contradict itself too often to be believable. Bob is simpler-thinking, but intelligent (all other people on the ship described as intelligent he does not click with); he’s mildly devious (we get a sense of hidden ideas, hidden on purpose), but humble; he’s complex, but easy, he’s gullible but tactical. Bob is working out for himself what he thinks is the most moral course for the mission, purposefully breaking away from what he considers the thrust of his people’s civilisation.

There’s potential for a study on the opposites that go to make a man here, but it’s clumsily handled, lost in the exploration of the biggest themes, which are much more personal: ‘they don’t understand me’, ‘they don’t value me’, and ‘I have achieved a better way of thinking than them, the poor fools’. These, unfortunately, seem very like the preoccupations of pretty much every teenager negotiating their way into adult life. Bob, through being identified with these themes, comes across as a rather unblanced and immature type. This does undermine all his thinking on the grander socio-political ideas he's been batting around, and diminishes Bob's credit with the reader.

People are not simple this or that, of course, but there is no discernable consistency to his back-story or to his point of view. Instead of character development, or even a sense of unpeeling layers like an onion, ‘getting to the core of the character’, which should be the mainstay of this type of character sketch story, revelations are contradictory, hoist by their own petard in the use of temporal flashbacks within the narrative. These ‘flashbacks’ to training, to innermost thoughts, alluding to Bob’s past muddy the water because contradictory information is presented each time. With no handle to grasp on this character, and with everything resting on this character as medium and device of the content, it is foolish not to provide a better canvas for motivational examination.

Context has to come from the style and planning of the piece instead. First chapter is the development of a purportedly ‘neutral’ individual. Chapter two: that ‘neutral’ voice becomes biased with opinions on the pros and cons of the missions’ structure, unclear motivations from youth, and projections for the future of the mission. Chapter three: increased density of thought and passionate trumpeting of ideals. It reads nothing so much as like the earnest conversations in pubs after the drink has flowed for a couple of hours.

Great sci-fi is a place for hypothesis of humanity branching out; space and time as the backdrop for discussion of essential essences of humanity’s soul and mind and achievements, faults and problems. Granted, it seems that this story attempts to join the ranks of such vast and challenging subjects. But it becomes bogged down in an inability to hone down ideas, removing extraneous descriptive paragraphs, before one starts to toy with propositions. It is very repetitive. The narrative goes nowhere but in circles. Pace is bogged down by those flashback moments, as they offer nothing very new. Constant use of certain phrases, like talismans, make for a formulaic feeling (“I’ve read this before”). Of most note here is the refrain that Bob’s thinking has reached, or is just reaching the “zenith” of the protagonist’s personal “quest.” Also how his plans are coming together, coming together, coming together: but not what, exactly, he’s up to. He get hints of something ghastly and most likely fatal for those around him, but there is no sense of resolution or relief promised or expected; just another heap of navel-gazing. The intention, I am sure, is to keep the reader guessing. But by the fourth or fifth repetition of a zenith, of a ‘great plan’, I was rather hoping Bob would hurry up and do the lot of it in, and end the misery of trawling through his turgid thought processes.

Not long after it started I smelled a plot twist coming (that, in fact, did not arrive, thus losing even a tiny trick of interest). Being careful always to label the character’s ‘species’ as such, McRath leaves the way open for a non-human character into which we have been listening in and understanding on a human level. This could be an advanced race of aliens travelling to Earth, much as humans think we will travel the stars and discover new life. But this revelation did not come. Is this an attempt to create an ‘every being’ onto which McRath can ladle his own concerns and arguments? Instead there is a clumsy hiccup every time Bob mentions his ‘species,’ instead of simply saying ‘us’. Most likely this is to show Bob’s feelings of ostracism from the rest of his race.

About that ostracism. It’s a good example of the contradictory nature of the characterisation. Bob, we are told, feels separate from the rest of the group and his own people. The community on the ship is now, effectively, his whole world and people, so far into deep space. Bob has, instead, his own internal world to keep him company. He feels rejected by the group and tries to work out why and how he feels about it. He sees the rest of the group as being sucked into a material world view, wanting success and fame and wealth; something he appears to pity and deride by turns. But later on he does admit that to such intelligent people as the rest of the crew “social and spiritual compatibilities mattered more.” He does not mourn the loss of a sexual partner (in a paragraph that reads like the miffed justifying of a teenager left out of the fun), but yet he seems to yearn for a connection at some level. He deals with his uncertain position by placing himself on a level above and beyond the others, seeing himself as gifted, somehow, in his attainment of purer state of mind. But then he also freely admits “every single member was an exceptionally accomplished individual, other than a couple of incidental choices like him,” (my italics). A varied character is great, but this continuous back and forth undermines any credibility an examination of character and character motive. If the reader cannot be allowed to have a starting point, they will not believe what follows. The biggest problem is, I think, the style versus the intention.

This whole piece is an attempt to tackle ‘the big questions.’ One way of doing this is to produce the goods via the painfully honest stream-of-consciousness flow. Having tried to wrestle with the content of that, McRath then presents it in a normatively structured, narrative form. And it does not work like that. Stream of consciousness is about letting the character’s senses do the talking, with the reader left to make their own conclusions. Here the author wants it both ways: to present their ‘proofs’ of the character’s mind, but parcel it up in a controlled format. It simply does not work.

When Bob is rejected by the group, he claims this is because of their “lack of mental abilities” in thinking how he thinks. This holier-than-thou-god-complex level of thinking means he has considered himself to be the new planet’s best chance of what is effectively salvation from the claws of his people. Yet there are beings ‘out there’ Bob wants to impress; paternalistic alien forces. This is a nice little paranoid sociopath building up. Or most likely the normal frustrations of a young adult. Any decent Zen master will tell you, it’s never about arriving, as there can be no arriving, it’s about the journey. To suggest that Bob, a character entirely at the mercy of his author’s workings and thought processes, can have found a ‘superior’ level of thinking is faintly ludicrous. What could have become a nice, tight little character sketch of a psychotic break-up of a mind, lonely in space, is an un-rooted, muddled diatribe.

After doing some research, I found this blurb about another collection of stories that McRath has self-published via Amazon: “These tales will certainly hold some value for those, who value honest relationships, simple interactions, humble friendships. Those, who have encountered and gained respect for the sweet pain of loneliness. These tales may very well turn out to be entertaining for those with patience, and appreciation of life beyond the mass culture.” I think this says it all, and fully agrees with how I have found this narrative; it’s all about the big stuff, man!

The best line of the lot is this: “He would have preferred to avoid pain, avoid torture, experience life’s luxuries, satisfy every single physical desire of his body, every single high his mind could experience. He could have dreamt about these, but the understanding of his self, life around him and realities beyond were more important.” This actually sums up everything the author has been trying to say in a few thousand words, and in a manner more succinct and considerably more honest. We hope for something, but we realise we have feet of clay; so we continue to strive. I would rather have had the paragraph instead of the story. The thrust of the piece, thus summed up, shows a lack of development over its course. Yes, this is a proposition, but it’s an old one, one that comes around every time people start asking questions beyond “where can I find shelter, and what’s for dinner?” The point is that it is a starting point to move on from, not skirt about it in various positions but not to make any suggestions, as this story does. This piece does not bring anything new to the table. The protagonist is so far up his own fundament, he is chasing his own tail. Introspective writing is one thing. But it should open eyes to new ideas or new angles; not be a tiresome read that I would rather have chucked up for something with far more vim and verve. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, for example.

The poor grammar and spelling do not help. I was particularly annoyed by small details, such as an ‘amada’, the use of ‘there’ for ‘their’, and the lazy phrasing. In the first paragraph, we are told that “every hour had turned out to be way longer...” Way longer? That needs dropping, because along with the use of the reductive, repetitive “anyways” during a particularly sulky-sounding passage (“… not compatible anyways […] more than enough anyways […] not about sex anyways”), this just makes Bob’s voice far too young for what he is supposed to represent. The use of ‘you’ later towards the end of chapter three is not about audience participation, but reads like the last-ditch attempt by an agitated youngster to convince the reader.

The choppy use of truncated phrases is also detrimental to the quality of presentation. The author has too much of a habit of using short sentences. Yes, these traditionally mark a change to a faster pace, but if you want to make a list of modifiers, or simply a list of circumstances applicable to the main point in your sentence, then you use commas. If it looks too long, lose some of the modifiers; you most likely do not need them all to make a point.

And then there is the dog. Added, one feels, to make punch-line closure to find someway of ending this lot; a debonair throw-away ‘anyway, it was time to feed the dog and sleep’ line. Where the heck did it come from? At no point do we know he has one, that one is allowed, or that he is able to express affection to another living being; very important given his sociopathic nature. It arrived, a paragraph or so from the end, with no warning.

There could be a solid examination here of ideas, of a mindset caught in long periods of time with nowhere else to go but internally, but it needs one hell of an edit. I could not find out much about the author, except that he champions self-publishing for aspiring writers. On a blog, he writes “personally, I would say, once an indie author’s work is finished, even though it may not be perfect, they should still put it out there […] reviewing your work, creating a respectable cover and editing your work carefully are extremely important.” I don’t know if what I had to review was a pre-publication proof, but this did not feel edited at all, and I can only hope that the kindle version on Amazon has been straightened out. Frankly, what I read was a mess, which is not the best way to get your name known.

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