Last week I read two books. One book took me someplace I'd never been, provided rich descriptions of a strange world, and delved into a history of discomfiting beliefs and beings. The other book was science fiction.
Tom Kizzia's Pilgrim's Wilderness is stunningly good. A non-fiction account of a dominating and demon-haunted family patriarch who takes his wife and 14 (later 15) children into the Alaskan wilds, the book is written with such energy, it feels novelistic—but not in the way of some fake suspenser masquerading as nonfiction, like The Hot Zone. The book is novelistic in style—employing rich language to provide vivid descriptions—and in structure, shifting through time according to the demands of the narrative. To say much about what happens is to spoil some of the book's surprises. Suffice it to say that "Mr. Pilgrim's" story begins in a past cluttered with privilege, tragedy, and unexpected connections. It would end with deprivation, tragedy, and horror. What the man did to his family makes for a disturbing tale, but reporter Kizzia also wants us to see how people responded to "Pilgrim," how communities struggled to both accommodate the varying impressions the man purveyed while also being mindful of his children.
Some of the actors have much to answer for, as their own paranoid politics fuel perspectives just as damaged as Pilgrim's. But Kizzia is evenhanded in treating both the people of the town of McCarthy (and other human developments through which the family passed) and the U.S. government, which in some ways mishandles the Alaskan wilderness and the people who live there. The author has a dog in the fight, too, as he and his wife (now deceased) had constructed a cabin in the region, drawn by the beauty and isolation. This is an American story. People do sometimes want to be left alone. Yet sometimes people only say they want to be left alone. Some people head into isolation for reasons that may not be isolating, but binding, as they look for connections amidst the vast emptiness. And some people are hiding. Like many stories of the American wilderness, it's a story of survival—and as in many stories of survival, the most dangerous animal is human.
Read Pilgrim's Wilderness.
The book was such a dramatic contrast to James Gunn's deeply disappointing Transcendental, about which the less said, the better. The blurbs that hawk its connections to Chaucer are disingenuous: there's a ship named the Geoffrey and some aliens tell stories on the way to wherever-they're-going, but beyond those superficial nods (and occasional other tossed-off literary hiccups), there's no deeper commitment to the types of wild stories told by Chaucer's pilgrims; in fact, all of the stories are similar, the voices are similar, and the aliens weirdly lean toward thinking that, annoying as humans are, maybe their systems of culture and government are better, with the elephant-type creature going so far as to declare that maybe humans, with their monogamy, have the right idea. Almost nothing happens in the novel; "transcendence" itself doesn't seem especially transcendental, once it's explained (so the final let-down isn't much of a surprise), and the novel appears to be a set-up for a series of books . . . unless Gunn truly intended for this to be merely a shaggy dog tale.