Review by David Harris
Lavie Tidhar seems to be amazingly productive just now, publishing The Circumfernce of the World, an SF novel that really gets to grips with the fact that is SF, as well as having series going examining the history of Israel/ Palestine (Maror, Adama) and the mythology of Britain (By Force Alone, The Hood).
In The Circumference of the World, he having fun, giving us a cunningly ramified blend of narratives. In one – set in late ’90s London – Levi, husband of Delia Welegtabit has disappeared. He may or may not have possessed a copy of an elusive novel, Lode Stars, in which pulp legend Eugene Charles Hartley is rumoured to have encoded truths about the nature of the universe – and using which he then founded a religion. (You won’t find any reference in this book to a real example of a religion set up by a cult SF writer, of course.)
A London gangster and his tame police stooge want the book, as well as a rogue faction of The Church of God’s All-Seeing Eyes. The former engage second hand book dealer, Daniel Chase, to find it. The latter take more direct measures.
That’s the first layer. We also learn about Delia’s early life on the island of Vanuatu (also visited by Hartley during WWII) and about Hartley’s career and life – part of this is told through letters to and about Hartley by various early SF luminaries – Tidhar rendering many different voices here, all totally believably.
We also read an extract from The Book itself, the story of (another) Delia seeking her lost father deep in space, the setting keying into a mythology that Hartley either believed or invented. It’s all about the destination of humankind, which is to be both swept into a black hole at the centre of the galaxy and preserved as information. All of these narrative levels interact, with coincidences, names and versions of names, apparent timeslips and repeated themes (shadows, eyes). Some of these might be explained by Hartley’s authorship of Lode Stars and his making allusions to the works of his contemporaries: others – less so.
Gangster Oskar Lens’s career as a black market dealer in the failing Soviet Union features too, as does the London second-hand book scene (‘My highest ambition had always been to open my own bookshop on Cecil Court’). It’s a bewildering ride through 20th century history and the birth of modern SF (taking in the rise of modern conventions, as well as gatherings in a Holborn pub) something Tidhar has deep knowledge of (it was fun to spot allusions, especially in the Lode Stars extract, to names, themes and artefacts from various genre classics: I’m sure I missed many). It is though much more than that, touching on questions about the nature of reality and the meaning of life as well as – perhaps – commenting on how the SF writer of a religion may be affected by that and, possibly, escape the trap he’s set himself.
There is some lovely wordplay here (‘Dewey-eyed librarians’) as well as nice pulpy (but culturally appropriate) language (‘Paperbacks started back at me from the shelves without saying a damn thing’, ‘My aunt had died of cancer. She wasted away like a cigarette.’) as well as starkly beautiful language (‘I felt the press of stars overhead, and they were cold, and bright, and indifferent.’)
I really enjoyed The Circumference of the World. As a book, it is a thing of its own, not like anything I’d come across before, but a great read crammed with ideas and glorious writing: there is simply so much material here, I think some writers could and would make 3 or 4 books of it but we have all that concentrated in a short novel. Somehow that compression means that – like matter spiralling into a black hole – everything here simply lights up, bathing the reader with its intense radiation.
An amazing read, strongly recommended.
David blogs at Blue Book Balloon. A former physicist, he is married to a vicar and lives by a village green sometimes used to film Midsomer Murders, but has, against the odds, survived so far. David works in tax but promises he isn’t going to bring that up here.
Lavie Tidhar, The Circumference of the World (Tachyon, 2023). 978-1616963620, 256pp., paperback original.
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