A review that originally appeared in Interzone #269:-
Steve Rasnic Tem
Solaris pb, 288pp, £9.99
Steve Rasnic Tem’s latest novel opens with the words ‘Now in Ubo, he felt as if he’d not just fallen into but passed through the rabbit hole’.
Ubo is a place separate from but part of the world. From its windows Daniel and the others being held there can see a city in ruins, a crumbling urban landscape lit up by flames at night and with the screams of the innocent brought to them on the wind. The last memory they have of their life pre-Ubo is of being snatched up by giant flying insects, the same roaches who now keep them prisoner and subject them to horrific experiments. Seemingly at random the prisoners are inserted into scenarios where they ride piggyback on the consciousness of some of human history’s greatest monsters. They stare out from behind the eyes of Stalin, Jack the Ripper, Gilles des Rais, Himmler and others, experiencing the atrocities these people commit and learning something of what drives them. We too experience some of these scenarios, filtered through the consciousness of Daniel. And in between atrocity shows we see how he interacts with the other inmates, the suspicions they all have as to why they are being held and what the purpose of the experiments is, with some apparently having more knowledge than others.
What is Ubo? Initially the title put me in mind of Dick’s Ubik, and there is something of his ontological tricks and mind games in the scenarios, but in fact the word is an acronym, giant letters inscribed on the outside of the building in which Daniel and the others are being held, most likely a warning to stay away. But the outside world isn’t going to stay away forever. Some of the scenarios Daniel lives through are set in the present day rather than the past, taking him into the mind of a modern predator, the self-christened God of Mayhem with his philosophy of nihilism in which destruction is ‘comforting, simply the means to a greater end’, and the God’s merciless attention is now focused on Ubo.
Tem’s reputation in the main is based on his work in the horror genre, but while this book has probably more in the way of violence and mayhem than anything I’ve seen from his pen, the mechanism that drives it is purely science fictional and the underlying concerns are philosophical. Ubo is, in the author’s own words, ‘a meditation on violence’, through the medium of the scenarios exploring its effects and the reasons we commit it. Tem dares to step inside the minds of assorted sociopaths, giving a voice to their madness and their fears. He reproduces on the page the insanity of Jack the Ripper, taking us deep into the unfathomable depths of a consciousness that has almost no connection at all to humankind. He shows us the mindset of Stalin, a dictator who is driven by fear, and believes that he can survive and flourish only by creating a greater fear in others through random acts of violence. He introduces us to Himmler, who sees violence purely as a means to control others and resolve problems. In the figure of Charles J. Whitman, regarded by many as the first spree killer, there is a degree of ambiguity, with the violent actions of a man who knows that what he is doing is wrong, but seems unable to stop himself. And then there is the massacre at My Lai, with soldiers losing their moral compass in the heat of battle, the fever dream of slaughter and learnt hatred of those who are different from us. But perhaps the most intriguing and challenging figure is the one Tem has cut from whole cloth, the God of Mayhem, who follows his worst instincts along the way devising a philosophy of destruction to justify his actions.
Playing counterpoint to the scenarios, are the memories of Daniel and the other prisoners in Ubo. Each of them has a story to tell, and each story seems to involve some moment of crisis reached just at the point when they were abducted by the roaches. There is the suggestion that they have been chosen because of some personal shortcoming. For those with religious convictions, Ubo is seen as an iteration of Hell. To paraphrase the novelist Harry Crews, whose thoughts on Charles J. Whitman are mentioned in passing by Tem, it seems that we all have the potential for violence inside us, and in denying it, in refusing to confront our own propensity for destruction, we raise the probability that these feelings will find some other, less healthy outlet.
Tem has no answers to the questions that he raises, though at the end he does give us the hint of an alternative way of life to the path we currently appear to be on. He has no answers, but he does ask the questions in an eloquent and effective way, taking us deep into the terra incognito of the violent outsider, inviting us to formulate our own responses to what we see and experience. And from meditation on violence he moves ultimately to an even greater concern, though one that is perhaps not quite as pressing or vital, posing the question of what it means to be human, the nature of identity, if we are more than the sum of our memories.
Ubo is beautifully written, the author getting under the skin of his characters, who are never less than believable, and with whom we empathise regardless of their shortcomings, or perhaps because of those very flaws. Contained within its pages is a chilling vision of the future, though not one entirely devoid of hope, and a bleakness of the soul, all wrapped up in a compelling plot that retains the ability to surprise the reader to the last page, as its rhymes and reasons are carefully unwrapped. Of the novels and stories I have read by Tem, Ubo is probably the finest and most accomplished, a work that deals with serious matters in a mature and insightful manner, but is never less than entertaining in the way it presents its ideas. It is, quite simply, required reading.