The City of Illusions: Yankee Republic Book 4 [Amazon link] by Fenton Wood is Philo’s most fantastical adventure yet, as he traverses the Tower of the Bear, travels through time, and survives the challenges of the Obsidian Tower.
As we are now four books into a five book series, nothing will truly make sense without reference to what has gone before. Philo’s journey across the American continent is itself prefigured in the first book, when he and his friends biked fifty miles to get radio parts. I struggle a bit with how much to share and how much to reserve, as there are mythic depths to be plumbed, but also the pure joy of experiencing it for yourself.
As Philo nears the goal of his quest, the challenges become commensurately greater. He must be tested, and found worthy, for that which he seeks can provide great power, and with great power comes great responsibility. Many who have come this way before him have failed.
So, rather than go into the details of the quest, and how Philo attempts to overcome the challenges set before him, let us turn to the great conversation of fantastic adventures. I maintain that adventure fiction, that genre which seeks to instill the emotion of wonder in its readers, is best when it is seen as low art. As such, its primary purpose is to entertain. However, once that primary purpose has been fulfilled, authors can then usefully turn to developing their favorite speculation about new lands, new peoples, and new possibilities.
One of my favorite bits of The City of Illusions is when Philo meets the Lost Cosmonaut, whom we first heard rumors of in Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves. In Philo’s world, the Russians have the most advanced space program, sending men on far flung missions throughout the solar system. The radio operators of the Republic carefully preserve recordings of when they claim they heard the last desperate message of cosmonaut, lost without hope of return, who passed beyond the heliopause and started to hear the music of the spheres, inexpressibly beautiful and strange to human ears.
But because this is the Yankee Republic series, no one is every truly without hope. That man did not perish alone in the dark vastness of space, but instead passed beyond merely human experience and was granted a vision of glory. Clarke and Kubrick and Sagan [Amazon links] tried to express this same idea, the grandeur and glory of the universe, yet in my view all of the foregoing failed, as their materialistic premises limited their imaginations. Unlike Frank Poole, the Lost Cosmonaut has seen the Face of God, and now he is truly happy.
There are so many possible links in this volume to well-known fantastic fiction that is difficult to do them all justice. The way in which the Lost Cosmonaut describes the music of the spheres reminds me of Fredrik Pohl’s The World at the End of Time. The genesis of the Lost City in the Valley of the Angels is much like the afterword of Niven and Pournelle’s Burning City, when Canfield and Doheny dug an oil well with pickaxe and shovel, driven as if men possessed.
The fate of the Valley of Angels is also like another Niven and Pournelle collaboration, Lucifer’s Hammer. [Amazon link] I felt like this was the Jerry Pournelle memorial volume. Even the point at which Philo crosses the Colorado River on a monumental bridge, and he has a vision of what might have been if the people of the Republic had conquered this land flashed before his eyes. Jerry was involved in so many things during his life that increased the scope of the scientific knowledge and ambit of power of the Republic in our world, that I couldn’t but help think of him.
Philo’s world is not the world that Jerry tried to create here, but nonetheless I feel like there is a family resemblance, much like the faces back home in Porterville. Philo’s world has a beauty and peace to it that pulls you in, a magnetic attraction that exceeds mere utility. It is not our world, but in a strange way it is somehow more real for not quite existing. Come along for the journey, and see what I have seen.
Up next, the thrilling conclusion of the Yankee Republic!
Other books by Fenton Wood