The Labyrinth Key by Howard Hendrix

New York, Del Rey, 2004, $13.95, 432pp
reviewed in New York Review of Science Fiction 195, November 2004
 

When Arthur C. Clarke came up with his famous dictum: ‘Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic’, he was, clearly, contemplating a distant future. But over the years since then, that future has come closer. By devising cyberspace, William Gibson created an infinitely malleable playground that could be all things to all people. Greg Egan and his fellows, in examining the notion of a digitalised post-humanity, gave us characters who could be anything imaginable in that malleable playground. Now, that science indistinguishable from magic is as close as the next advance in computer technology. This trajectory of science fiction also reflects a move from outer space to inner space to the interstices of the computer here on my desk; and as the science has become indistinguishable from magic so the fiction has taken to borrowing more and more from the romantic origins of fantasy. It was Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide which first overlaid cyberspace with notions borrowed from the Renaissance Theatre of Memory. At the time, little more than a decade ago, the real historical figures most likely to crop up in a science fiction story were political leaders (Hitler or Lincoln) or just possibly Einstein, now I suspect that the 16th century mage, heretic and proto-scientist Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600, probably appears in more science fiction novels than anyone else.

This reading of the history of science fiction is at the core of Howard Hendrix’s new novel, a book which is, among other things, about the history of sf. Clarke is one of a number of science fiction writers who receive a nod of recognition throughout the book, while one of the most significant off-stage characters, apart from the inevitable Bruno, is Felix Forrest. In this world, Forrest is a top CIA operative from the height of the Cold War who spent an important part of his childhood in China and who wrote science fiction under a pseudonym. In our world, Forrest was a pseudonym used by Paul Linebarger for some of his early novels; Linebarger grew up in China, became an expert in psychological warfare, and wrote science fiction stories under the pseudonym of Cordwainer Smith. Smith’s stories told of a distant future in which the not always benign Instrumentality guided the developing posthumanity of Mankind; Forrest’s stories, according to Hendrix, also told of the Instrumentality, but in so doing they revealed in disguised form the existence and workings of conspiracies that had grown out of the world’s intelligence services, and they also inspired the creation of a genuine Instrumentality. Where Shakespeare talks of a ‘divinity that shapes our ends’, Hendrix offers us the god-like powers of a post-human shaped by conspiratorial secret services, and the end he has in mind is the end of our universe. Because in Hendrix’s novel cyberspace is not a metaphor, rather everything, the entirety of the multiple universes envisaged by quantum theory is information, and as humankind achieves digitalised posthumanity wherein they are able to manipulate that information, so this particular universe and all it contains will reach its end. This apocalyptic vision is the secret contained within Forrest’s science fiction stories, and it is what the Instrumentality, or at least one of the two warring factions within the Instrumentality, is striving to achieve. Forrest has, perhaps unwittingly, set this in motion because, while in China, he came across important documents on cryptography and memory put together by the late-Renaissance Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, and later put these together with other work on memory palaces by Giordano Bruno. The Renaissance Memory Palace proves to be an essential element in the development of quantum cryptography, the discovery of the digital key that will unlock any secret; and the quantum key that will unlock any secret will also unlock the secret of the digital multiverse and hence our accession to posthumanity.

Thus the intellectual, historical and literary background as this novel opens. Upon this complexity Hendrix has overlaid a rather old-fashioned spy-thriller narrative full of explosions and kidnappings hair’s-breadth escapades and deceptions and double-dealing and the sort of betrayal at the heart of the intelligence service that John Le Carre has made his stock in trade. Less than ten years into the future and we are in another Cold War, this time America and China are facing each other down. (Given the current developments in global politics, this doesn’t look particularly likely, but we’ll let that pass.) The battleground is the quest for the quantum key, and to that end top NSA mathematician Jaron Kwok is in Hong Kong when he disappears. Literally. It seems as if it is a case of spontaneous human combustion, except that nothing else is charred and the ashes he leaves behind appear to be a sort of computer chip. What’s more, in the instant of his passing (his transubstantiation? his ascension? the language and imagery of the novel grow increasingly biblical as it goes on) a curious scenario is instantaneously transmitted across cyberspace. From this opening we are pitched into the traditional rollercoaster of action and revelation. Independent-minded gurus of cyberspace are recruited by a shadowy organisation to interpret Kwok’s scenario. A female Chinese detective finds she can’t trust either side as she tries to investigate the disappearance. The deputy director of the NSA, who has himself dubious connections with an outside agency, discovers that everyone else above and below him in the agency has different loyalties. And Ben Cho, a brilliant mathematician mourning the recent death of his wife is recruited by the NSA to take over where Kwok left off, only to find that there are more forces ranged against him than he could have ever imagined and that, startlingly, he and Kwok were, unknown to either, twins.

This plot works itself out as such plots always do, with shoot-outs and unexpected alliances and the unmasking of traitors at key moments. Meanwhile the other underlying plot works itself out with transformations and angels and the fabric of time being twisted. Ben Cho becomes something very much like God (why is so much hard, rational science fiction of late concerned with the nature of divinity?), his wife is raised from the dead, peace is restored, loose ends are tied and the universe is preserved. Then Hendrix feels called upon to provide a question and answer session afterwards to explain what’s going on, as if the preceding novel hasn’t been explanation enough. Yes, there are cutting-edge ideas here, but science fiction has been honing this particular blade for twenty years now, and Hendrix is so self-conscious about his sf origins that he is well aware of this. Mind you, anyone reading this as a straight futuristic thriller might find the transcendental jumble with which it is resolved particularly confusing, so maybe we need these questions and answers. But it is a worrying trend, nevertheless.