Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A novel of illusion vs reality

The Song of Synth

By Seb Doubinsky

Publisher: Talos

Pub. Date: August 4, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is impossible to write a review of a Seb Doubinsky novel that doesn't mention the influences of Phillip K. Dick. That is because there are so many similar themes: The confusion between reality and illusion, the delicate role of identity, the connection between hallucinogenics and perception, and the soured fruits of repression in an authoritarian society to name just three. But there are distinct differences too. While Dick was essentially a pulp writer who tackled philosophical issues, Doubinsky is a poet who not only understands the subtlety of the themes, which Dick certainly did, but endows them with a poetic beauty.

Now with The Song of Synth, an earlier novel (2013) by Doubinsky that has been reprinted this year, We can add William S. Burroughs to the list of influences. This is most evident in the first half of the novel where the protagonist is constantly under the influence of a drug called Synth whose hallucinations are so strong and of such long duration that they can be easily mistaken for reality. In both the works of Dick and Burroughs, hallucinations and multiple realities have a symbiotic relationship. Doubinsky's merging of hallucinogens with virtual reality games also bring to mind Gibson in content if not in style. I'm going to toss out one more name in the mix and mention the "non-fiction" writer Carlos Casteneda. In Casteneda, as in Song of Synth, Hallucinogens offer not just a voyage to an alternate reality but often a tool to understand the one we are already in. Doubinsky's protagonists may be confused and lost in the varying interpretations of their realities but eventually they became grounded and address the sociopolitical dilemma they live in.

Since I leaped straight into an analysis, perhaps I should offer some grounding of my own and describe the bare bones of The Song of Synth. Markus Olsen is a former hacker who is now working for the corrupt government of Viborg City hunting hackers. It was part of a plea deal that kept him out of jail even while those his partners ended up with thirty years imprisonment. He escapes from the misery of his life through a new and possibly dangerous drug called Synth. It blends fantasy and reality together to the point that they become inseparable for the user. The safety of this devil's deal is challenged when Markus is assigned to examine a recently arrested hacker and discover a novel with himself as a character. This leads him to past allies in his life and perhaps a way out of the trap he has made for himself.

Doubinsky's novel can be said to have two halves. The first half takes place in the corrupt and oppressive Viborg City. This is an alt universe Doubinsky has used before. Viborg City is a city of economic castes and massive corruption. Virtual reality seems to be an "opium of the people" designed to help them escape and ignore their harsh reality. The second half takes place in Samarqand, a country with its own problems and corruption but with hints of revolution and tastes of freedom. It is a country where a poet can be a hero. The first half reeks of Burroughs as Markus struggles through his existential crisis like a junkie without a cause. The second half is more mainstream, so to speak, offering a quasi-mystery and throwing a few new teases along the way like a search for Alexander the Great's tomb. But these are only important to the extent they add to the main story of Marcus's own journey and resolution.

There are many layers in The Song of Synth but ultimately it is a novel about identity. Markus values his identity in what he does but there are many aspects to identity he does not understand. Identity is also in the way we value relationships and art. It in the way other perceive us and we perceive them. And it is the role forced on us, but ultimately rejected and accepted by us, by a society that either embraces or suffocate individuality. These are again similar themes we see in Dick, Burroughs and Casteneda . Doubinsky puts his own poetic stamp on it and welcomes us to interpret it with our own visions. Is it a perfect novel? Of course not. Does it rise to the equal of a Dick or Burroughs. No. It does lose the flow occasionally and some of the "hints" get lost in the shuffle. Yet it is an exceptional work out of the mainstream but still accessible for those who don't mind a little work while they read.

Doubinsky is still a young writer relatively speaking. There are bound to be more works from him and I suspect we will visit Viborg City once again as it seems to be the perfect setting for the author's sometime hallucinogenic, sometime socio-political meanderings. If they are even close to this work, they will be very welcomed.

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