Ian Watson

Ian Watson is a formidable SF writer, one of those few whose books genuinely are impressive as intellectual structures. The traditional commercial SF author swots up his physics, astronomy or (more rarely) biology in search of some new gimmick on which to hang a plot; Watson started with an impressive fistful of the soft sciences, and in his last few books has been working out in the wild blue yonder of metaphysics – where you're on your own, creating your own rules, and Higher Reality help you if they fail to make sense. "I am very interested in the Universe," said Peter Cook in Beyond the Fringe: "I am specializing in the Universe and all that surrounds it." The "all that surrounds it" has become a good part of Watson's science-fictional province.

Thus in Miracle Visitors he presented a theory of UFO phenomena as being genuinely "things that man was not meant to know" – leakage from a hgher level of reality, which you can come to know only by losing humanity and moving out into said higher reality. In God's World, probably Watson's most impressive performance to date, one crucial issue was that alien misuse of God (theological pollution? Well, almost) was causing all of our reality to gurgle down a metaphysical plughole. Then came The Gardens of Delight where the exposition of an extremely complicated world-system occupied practically all the book, with alchemy, and Hieronymous Bosch's heaven and hell, and an outrageous miscegenation of black-hole theory with the ontological proof of God's, or Something's, existence....

Fear not. Deathhunter will come as a pleasing surprise to anyone afraid Watson is becoming ever more remote and erudite: without abandoning important themes, he's written an enjoyable and accessible book. The chunks of exposition are better integrated; critics of Watson's characterisation will find that in the present book, the ground has been craftily cut out from under their feet (you can almost hear the author chuckling). And this time, the aspect of metaphysics under scrutiny is one that simply has to interest everybody: the small question of what happens when we kick the bucket. Not that the book's as simple or traditional as that might imply.

Deathhunter opens with a rapidly and often wittily sketched utopia, containing the expected hints of something rotten. The Good Life has resulted from the philosophy of the good death: the creed is that after death there's nothing, that you vanish like a turned-off TV picture, that the proper end of life is calm acceptance of oblivion ("you should go gently into that good night"). Psychiatrists have become "death guides" leading the aged and sick into this approved frame of mind – without fear, without hope – before voluntary euthanasia. It is trumpeted that with fear of death abolished, war and other evils have vanished too; at the same time it's quietly made plain that little things like poetry and the creative arts in general have likewise bitten the dust. Even scientific research into the possibility of an afterlife is taboo, since the findings might shake the wobbly dogmas of the Houses of Death....

Enter the eponymous and unsubtly named Jim Todhunter, a misfit death guide who falls into iconoclastic company and is duly corrupted by wrong thoughts. Suppose the only good death is a violent rather than a peaceful one – that something out there feeds on souls, and specifically those souls which fail to make a quick getaway? But if there is something, perhaps we can lay our hands on it: and the narrative accelerates towards the year's most memorable SF image (which succeeded even without a supporting plot, in Watson's short Omni story "A Cage For Death" earlier this year). Lured by synthetic corpse-sweat and recorded death-thoughts, Death itself is caught fluttering like a great red bat or moth through an infinite enclosure of mirrors ... and still there's more than half the book to come.

In fact, as always, there are dozens of cards up the Watson sleeve: a cure for cancer, journeys out of the body, glimpses into C.S. Lewis-like hells of one's own desires, "imagination space", a whisky-swilling angel who asks to be called Tulip, cosmic revelations which flip the universe inside out – and then again, and again. The closing chapters resolve certain inconsistencies (such as some strangely paranoid outbursts earlier in Todhunter's saga) which you'd swear the author had forgotten about; and just as one expects the book to topple with a dying fall into the old cop-out of, approximately, "suddenly he realised he had dreamt it all!" – just then, there's a final shocker in the unsettling tradition of Philip K. Dick.

Things and events can't be dismissed as unreal, Watson seems to be saying, simply because they happen in "imagination space". Why, you might have to create your own afterlife by an act of imagination when the time comes – and if it's influenced by Watson's imaginings in Deathhunter, as well it might be, the afterlife will (to say the least) be very interesting. All of which sounds ponderous, perhaps. Be assured that the book is a thoroughly exciting metaphysical thriller, never obscure and always gripping. Recommended.

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