Sept/Oct/Nov 2009

Mercury Station

Jeff Vandermeer


Although science fiction is known as a “literature of ideas,” many recent novels in the genre have been stuck in a rut of fun but safe geek technophilia or retro “boy’s adventure” stories. In a way, then, Mark von Schlegell’s Mercury Station feels both fresh and dated, because it ignores most of the current scene. Instead, the novel harks back to the heyday of such New Wave giants as J. G. Ballard, as well as such glorious eccentrics as Ursula K. Le Guin, John Calvin Batchelor, and Philip K. Dick, while shooting off stylistic fireworks reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov.

In 2150, Earth is an ecological wasteland. Humankind has colonized the solar system, but survival is far from assured. Eddard J. Ryan is locked up in a prison on Mercury for terrorist activities. His jailer is a somewhat dysfunctional artificial intelligence, the “moral imbecile” MERKUR qompURE. The arrival of Count Reginald Simwe Skaw, “a collector by trade,” complicates Ryan’s existence: Ryan once helped Skaw research temporal “gaps, breaks, anomalies, evident whitewashes,” and other “evidence of chrononautic penetration”; now Skaw’s return suggests that he has confirmed the existence of actual chrononauts, or time travelers, and that revelation involves Ryan in a much larger game that concerns the nature of time itself.

Von Schlegell meanwhile spins a medieval tale that follows a mysterious chrononaut known as Peregrine. The author uses atmospheric images—for instance, tents that whisper “indecipherable secrets, there against shadow-muffled lanterns, wax-burned fingers”—and intricate wordplay to portray a distant time. Ultimately, Peregrine’s quest provides context for Ryan’s memory loss and for how Skaw came to possess evidence of chrononauts.

The many delights of Mercury Station include Ryan’s jousting with MERKUR qompURE during interrogations about the gaps in his memory, the inclusion of Ryan’s rather suspect résumé, and the author’s extended riffs on the nature of time travel; a description of chronautics as “time’s sex organs” is particularly good. Most important, von Schlegell offers an explicit rejection of Ray Bradbury’s “butterfly effect,” which asserts that tiny alterations to the past can lead to irreparable changes in the present. Instead, an avatar of MERKUR qompURE, noting anomalies in fourteenth-century Europe, theorizes that during certain periods “a time traveler might not disrupt the history at all, as so much of that history was so soon to be disrupted on a greater scale”—in this case, by the black death.

Early on, von Schlegell writes, “If Earth’s fate was sealed then its history was now a closed system.” Later, however, and despite a fair amount of tragedy, he suggests that as long as the past is alive, our future is, too: “The war for Earth is still winnable . . . a valuation of the past.” Whether that’s true in the real world, von Schlegell addresses the realities of a grim future with grace, humor, and intellectual honesty.

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