A Shake of Salt—Review of Plenum: The First Book of Deo
In Geoffreyjen Edwards’ science fiction novel Plenum: The First Book of Deo, the Prologue tells us that we are about to experience the first act of young “gender-neutral” Vanu Francoeur’s triple-volume story. Which is also the first act of a 15-volume Ido Chronicles meta-story encompassing the fate of 4 other major characters… and of the Humanitat itself.
In spite of the grand scale of all this, Edwards’ prose moves at an elegantly contemplative pace, allowing for Vanu’s and our own questioning and wonder. We come to recognize and care about Vanu’s destiny through linguistically evolved vocabulary and customs, including humanly interactive technologies enabling an entire musical scale of genders, as well as the slowing or speeding of physiological time.
Vanu’s web of relationships includes members of non-human ecologies. For instance, the oggies, reminiscent of cephalopods with multiple limbs and recognizably empathetic personalities, and “barnaks” growing over the artificial habitat’s surfaces, in turn feeding still other creatures.
Meanwhile, we are plunged into The Annex, a bright, clean, orderly, constructed-habitat which this reader’s mind’s-eye envisioned as a pale, artificial crystal tumbling in the interstellar vacuum “with no privileged sense of direction.” Within its corridors, we enter the psychological dynamics of Novice Vanu’s far-ranging questions and The Kinship of the Suffering God’s prohibitions—zhe’s allowed to ask, “How big is The Annex?” but not “How big is God?” All of these strangely familiar elements cast a spell, reflecting and refracting on our 21st-century Earthling existence.
Through Vanu’s curiosity and awe, Edwards allows us kaleidoscopic glimpses of the gigantic Plenum star-nursery, brilliant against the absolute black of the void, like a van Gogh night with glimmering multi-colored stars. But none of the others around Vanu seem, like hirself, to be drowning in “too many thoughts.” What’s worse, her multiplying “questions (a)ren’t of the type that ha(ve) factual answers.”
In The Kinship’s Book of Doctrine, God is a parent. But Vanu’s only parenting has come through a harried care-taker raising a crowd of sibs, often “more stern than loving.”
One of Vanu’s most profoundly disturbing questions is, ”How could a Suffering God be both in continuous emergence,” i.e., suffering and growing with us, while also… “the ground from which humanity developed?”
Zhe attends tutoring sessions with young crib mates, carries on vaguely rebellious conversations in their private quarters. What do they discuss? Sex of course! But when one of Vanu’s sibs hints that action might take the place of mere talk, Vanu flees…. And this flight is key.
Within the immense Plenum nursery, brown dwarf stars can be weeded out and blue white stars encouraged to multiply and be fruitful—this is the primary, secretive labor of the Kinship of the Suffering God members who choose to devote their lives to it. Vanu, as a Kinship Novice, will soon have to make the most difficult choice of hir young life: to continue along the expected path… or to become a wanderer, to explore other sexual, intellectual, and spiritual territories.
Edwards’ imaginative scope generates the gravitational field of what we contemporaries might call a cosmogonic myth, spanning the beginning and the end of worlds, unfolding in a time-space neighborhood transcending and including both past and future—what Raimon Panikkar called the tempiturnal dimension of Being, reaching into every “when” and “where,” while remaining a singular, breath-takingly mortal, unrepeatable drama.
Imagine you live on an artificial world about the size of an old Earth city, parts of it spinning at variable speeds. Through wearable technology, time’s “tempo” is personally tunable around a real-time reference point. Imagine a world in which fire and rainclouds, wind and blue sky, are no longer experienced… outside of images. In place of Old Sol (Earth’s sun), there is the great scintillating Nursery whose colors reflect stages of stellar growth and aging—blue-white, blue-green, warm yellow, red-brown.
On the dark side of The Annex is a spinning air-filled habitat with a curved window facing away from the Nebula into deep night, lit by “the diffuse band of the Milky Way….” Vanu, fleeing unwanted intimacy with hir sib, stumbles into an adjacent garden zhe’s never seen before. Here, ceiling lights yellow as “humanity’s birthstar” nurture rows of medicinal plants Earthling readers might recognize: poppy, passionflower, meadowsweet. Shadowy gardeners, in slower time than Vanu’s near real-time, tend the rows. One of these separates hirself from the others, and slowly, then suddenly, moves toward Vanu.
This is Kinla Val, an adviser previously responsive to Vanu’s troubles. Zhe reminds Vanu that “religious communities have been tending gardens from the early days of life on Old Earth.” Then, as if the discovery of gardens naturally leads to vaster, aspirational journeys, zhe further suggests that Vanu, who is about to go through hir Maturation Ceremony, might first want to visit another part of the Plenum system, to serve out her apprentice-time while gaining a direct view of diverse ways within the larger Humanitat. Vanu eagerly accepts this possibility for a radical “change of scenery.”
Chapter XII, The Yard, opens after an interstellar voyage (at close to the speed of light), Vanu now serving with The Hospitality Group on a habitat called The Rock, an architecturally-enhanced moonlet “five light-years from The Annex.” Here, and in the following chapters, Vanu encounters and falls in love with Shosee, a member of another of the 6 gender-tones besides her own—considered “neutral.” At The Annex, only coupling among neutrals is allowed, since altered and unaltered sexual anatomies, kinds, and degrees of pleasure, though actually possible, are forbidden.
If God is Source, Means, and Destination, why should human thinking and behavior be so restricted?
For me, it is because of questions like this that Vanu is so easy to slip inside, to live through. Hir lively nature, hir sense of isolation from age-mates and elders while mostly appearing to fit in, surges with the energy of longing to know the yet-unknown, which, like sensuality and art, deeply animates human life and intelligence. The unknown includes other beings, tongues and civilizations which might or might not welcome hir questions, might or might not invite hir like a blue-white star, to develop into something unimaginable, some wilder portion of God….
Each chapter opens with an epigraph like the one above “accessed from The All Human Compendium.” Here, the novel opened most powerfully, capturing me. My tail was thoroughly salted, as my Welsh-Irish grandmother might have put it—irretrievably, I joined Vanu on hir spiritual-sensual odyssey….
Edwards paints grand starry forms on the night’s black canvas as well as he does hyper-focused intimate moments, e.g., when Vanu, in the Annex garden, mesmerized, has to remember to activate hir sense of smell (zhe wears a kind of permanent shielding veil with built-in sensory adjustments) before zhe is charmed by the “spicy, almost prickly odor of mint.” At The Yard, Vanu and Shosee make love. Soon afterward Vanu realizes hir first taste of what a Buddhist teacher/translator of St. John of Cross’ Noche Oscura* calls mystical endarkenment. “Vanu was more an instrument played upon by Shosee than zhe was the musician.” Zhe is plunged into an alarming cloud of confused intuition and doubt in which zhe is fundamentally changed, but does not yet know the nature of these changes with her ordinary mind.
Vanu goes on to explore the paradox that suffering, like pleasure, does not automatically yield its wisdoms to our conscious understanding. Rather this can happen only through the freely chosen catalyst of intense presence to experience—painful or ecstatic.
Edwards’ artistry, if it can be compared to any other well known SF writer, brings to my mind Ursula K. Le Guin, too recently slipped off this mortal coil into the cosmos at large from which, sadly, no further volumes of beloved writing can be expected to emerge. Fortunately, we now have Edwards’ quintuple compendium of trilogies to sustain and inspire those of us who love this genre at its most sensitively profound.
As we close Book One, leaving Vanu and hir world’s endless other beings, clans, civilizations, and many-eyed stories… I am, and you surely will be, grateful to know that still to come from Untimely Books and continuing Vanu’s story, are The Book of Deo, volumes 2 and 3. And beyond these, twelve more! Plenum, indeed.
We who are fortunate enough to travel through Edwards’ many worlds in real time—or an even slower, perhaps botanical time—can look forward to life-years of deep questions without easy answers—to sensually visionary moments “like… rare bird(s) which cannot be seen… what (we see and remember) is the trembling of the branch… just left.”*
November 8, 2022
Isla Vista / Anisq’O’yo, Coastal Chumash territory, Southern California
- Raimon Panikkar was a cross-cultural religious philosopher whose works include The Rhythm of Being. He was a practicing Hindu and a Roman Catholic priest; scholar, linguist, professor, mystic.
- “salted tail”: When I was a child, my Welsh-Irish grandma would preface the revelation of secrets with, A little bird told me… when I asked how I might touch and hear secrets, too, she said that anyone could only catch such a bird, not by chasing it, but with a shake of salt on its tail. I was, still am, left with questions. Why salt? And is God really a song sparrow with a very, very long tail…?
- Lawrence Durrell, Monsieur, epigraph for “Return to the Annex,” Plenum: The First Book of Deo, p. 155