Lunaya Pravda

06 December 2006

Book Review - The Traveler

I've been intending to write up my thoughts on my most recent fictional reading - John Twelve Hawks' The Traveler - for some time. Life intervened, things got busy, and I found myself wanting to reread the novel almost as soon as I finished it the first time around, so I put my write-up off for a bit. But I find myself with a spare moment, so here goes.

When I first heard about The Traveler (thanks, Powells employees) and added it to my future reading list, I was completely unaware of the controversy surrounding the information - or rather, the lack of available information - on its author. "John Twelve Hawks" struck me as being some overly-spiritual native American name, and not for a moment did I suspect it was a complete pseudonym. Not so odd, as writers go... many use pseudonyms, or have done so in the past.

Hawks' complete biography is often little more than one sentence telling us the writer "lives off the grid." His publishers at Randomhouse say he contacts them only using a untraceable satellite phone and utilizing a synthesizer to disguise his voice. He says he has no plans to go public, either, and that living off the grid, while not easy, isn't as hard as one might imagine. Marketing ploy or not, it adds a bit of intrigue to what is being billed as the first part of a science fiction trilogy.

Through man's history, the Travelers have come and gone. Travelers are people who, most often through genetic inheritance, can project the energy from their bodies into different realms - parallel universes only recently speculated to exist through the mathematics of quantum physics. Throughout their existence, Travelers have shown a propensity to stir up trouble - Joan of Arc and Jesus, among others, are speculated to have been Travelers - leading uprisings and defying the paradigm of the powerful.

Also through history, a group calling themselves Harlequins have been protecting the Travelers from those in power seeking to destroy them. Harlequins begin training in defensive tactics as children, usually trained by their Harlequin parents; most prominent of these weapons is the sword, and each Harlequin has one. They live off the grid, and in modern times, employ many tactics to avoid detection, something becoming more and more difficult as technology advances to facial recognition, DNA detection, and RFID.

Seeking to destroy both the Travelers and the Harlequins are the Tabula (from the latin tabula rasa). The Tabula (who call themselves The Brethren), are a select group of people in power. Not the figureheads we see in the news, but rather the puppeteers behind things, the Wizard of Oz-style men behind the curtain. The Tabula believe that he who controls the information can control the population, and rightfully, anyone who can demonstrate a reality other than their own could become a formidable threat to their power. Their past plan of action has been to hunt down and kill every known Traveler, and the information age has helped to accelerate that process dramatically. Today, no Travelers are believed to exist, their entire existence having fallen into the category of urban legend for most.

Jeremy Bentham's proposed prison, the Panopticon in which the prisoners never see their guards and never know exactly when they're being watched, is a paragon of virtue to the Tabula. As such, they are striving to create just such a prison throughout the world, one where everyone is constantly under surveillance. Just because the prisoner doesn't see the prison walls doesn't mean they don't exist, and the information age has provided them with the means to place that goal within reach.

The Tabula have quite an array of tools at their disposal for tracking the citizens of almost any industrialized country. They write release computer viruses (one with the threatening nickname "Carnivore") that pass in and out of networks connected to the Grid, gathering information and sending it back. They can gain access to surveillance cameras, both private and public, anywhere in the world. Their computers sift through driving records, GPS, finances, phone calls - every electronic record ever stored. They falsify records in order to use the unsuspecting public to hunt down their quarry. And they are learning to genetically modify animals, creating vicious monsters called "splicers" which can heal their wounds almost instantly and will fight to the death to kill their prey.

The few remaining Harlequins discover the existence of two brothers, the sons of a known Traveler. The Tabula also know of these brothers, and are seeking to find them. A race begins to see who can track these men down first and discover whether they have the ability to cross over as their father did. The Harlequins want to bring these men to a Pathfinder, a sort of spiritual guide who trains Travelers to cross over. The Tabula have developed a new plan, one seeking capture rather than kill, to use a Traveler's ability to cross over for their own twisted purposes of social control and subjugation.

Most often, when I think of science fiction, I think of something set hundreds of years into the future, where everyone has a flying car and a condo on the moon. But The Traveler is set in our time, with RFID and video surveillance and proposals to chip every man, woman, and child on the planet, making it that much more appealing.

This novel certainly appealed to the tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorist in me. It points out all the trappings of living in a surveillance society, and how easily those in power can avoid the rules when it suits their own ends. The Tabula have no difficulty manipulating situations to give themselves the upper hand, much as government today does. And it points out how easily tempted society is by giving up an inch here and an inch there, all the while selectively ignoring the miles we've given up along the way.

Its protagonists convey the message of the importance of avoiding all the distractions - the wars, the fads, the celebrities, the diseases - put in front of us to keep us sidetracked and navel-gazing inside the Panopticon, and indeed make some of us crave the protection promised by the surveillance society's supporters. And while it doesn't highlight any particular religion, it emphasizes the significance of at least some spirituality if one desires to avoid those distractions.

There is much to be gleaned on many levels from this novel, and I suspect many freedom-minded folk will enjoy this not just as a work of fiction, but for its anti-government commentary on the world in which we live. I eagerly await the next trilogy installment.