Unlike most of the book reviews I do here, which function mainly as a consumer guide, I’m going to take a look at Netheral, by Brian Niemeier from a cultural and literary perspective in as neutral of a voice as I can muster. Its function on these levels as at least as important as the entertainment value it provides and given the critical success of the novel and its follow-up works a deeper look into the novel is warranted.
I should note there have been three novels published to date in this series, and I have only read the first. Its part in the larger narrative the author is constructing remains a point for future discussion.
Netheral is a work that can only be truly understood by understanding the context under which it was written. The author is a vocal part of a movement within science fiction, styled the “Pulp Revolution” which adds an historical component to another concept the author frequently champions, so-called “superversive science fiction”. Both of these terms encompass a desire to return moral clarity and positive heroism to the realm of science fiction. The newer “Pulp Revolution” recognizes the popularity this type of fiction had on audiences prior to the Second World War. This movement positions itself against a science fiction mainstream that, in their opinion, is dominated by progressive materialists who have exhausted their creative energy and can only produce facsimiles of earlier works, with perhaps an extra dollop of social justice and moral relativism. These circumstances seem to be reflected in the novel. The villains, a bureaucratic corporate monopoly that are institutionally dedicated to the tenets of materialist philosophy, are clear echoes of the author’s criticisms of the world of corporate publishing and geek culture in general. That these villains deny the existence of of a supernatural realm that turns out to be very real and struggle to cope with evidence they are very wrong about the universe reads like a critique of the atheism endemic in geek culture.
This flaw in the villains is tempered by the fact that no one else had a correct understanding of the supernatural prior to experiencing it in the novel, and religious belief was but a shadow of the deeper reality of the cosmos. This serves to communicate a deeper message, that the unknown exists but is indescribable. The physical existence of planes once relegated to myth and belief and the ability for sentient corporeal beings to cope with, understand and create technology to travel to them is another way the author sows doubt about the ultimate nature of the universe he has created.
An often repeated theme regarding the supernatural is that its existence makes reality a more frightening place to be. Your actions really do have consequences, and those consequences can be quite frightening. Not only that, when all of these arcane forces are stirred, the mere humans (and mere near-humans) cannot entirely shape their own destiny and there is no way to fully control the options available to you. This ties back into the initial discussion of superversive science fiction. The novel clearly sends a message that is in accordance with the primary tenets of the literary movement: that while guile and selfishness are a means for characters to get ahead and survive their trials, triumph is reserved for the virtuous.
A proxy theme that only tangentially relates to superversive fiction is that of alienation. It seems like reading this novel that each character is more alienated from society than the last. This theme speaks to the alienation felt by many of us, and I suspect that includes the author, when faced with contemporary culture artifacts. Mass entertainment, designed to entertain a maximum number of people at a time leaves outliers feeling alienated. While smaller budgets and smaller talent can aim at these outlier populations, success at the margins inevitably leads to a desire in corporate ownership to change and better engage with the mainstream, leaving behind many people who find themselves even more alienated than they were before. This type of situation, where a one-size-fits-most solution is applied over and over again, creating successively smaller groups that feel successively more and more alienated seems to match our present cultural and political realities as much as it matches the state of interstellar politics in Netheral.
What the authors are claiming about the “Pulp Revolution” presents a solution to this problem. Their contention is that science fiction became a cultural endeavor for the marginalized when it had previously been something enjoyed by the masses. And while these authors feel alienated by the current, marginal status quo of science fiction, their revolution seeks to find new inspiration from the past mainstream, rather than escaping deeper into esoteric communities. I wish them luck in their endeavors, I will certainly continue reading them.