Rating: 8.5 (out of 10)
Good first contact stories are as much about philosophical interplay as they are about cultural differences. “You have a unique vision”, interdimensional traveler Habidah tells 14th century monk Niccoluccio, about halfway through Tristan Palmgren’s debut novel, Quietus. She continues, “All of the Abrahamic religions on this world do. Few in the Unity see the body and the mind as separate in the way you do.” Habidah is from the Unity, the largest known planar empire in the multiverse, one that presumably functions under a more holistic philosophy than the medieval Italian culture she encounters on Niccoluccio’s plane of existence. The intersection of Niccoluccio’s dualism and Habidah’s holism tests what they understand (or misunderstand) about each other’s motives and has consequences for both their worlds.
Like the best genre fiction, Quietus has a premise and plot that juggles some familiar elements with fresh ideas: Habidah is a Unity anthropologist studying the effects of the Black Death on European civilization. The Unity is suffering from its own devastating plague, called the onierophage, the only disease its god-like overseers, the amalgamates, have been unable to produce a cure for. Habidah and her team are assigned to report on how medieval culture responds to, and possibly recovers from, a pestilence it cannot cure or contain. When she first encounters Niccoluccio he is wandering the wilderness after watching all his brothers and their charges die from the plague, he is near-starving and being hunted by a pack of hungry wolves. Her mission dictates that she not interfere with the natural progression of events on his world, but she has reached a point where she can no longer stand to see everyone she encounters suffer horribly and die. She decides to cross that red line just once, and so rescues him from certain death and nurses him back to health. She is surprised, and a little confused, at what little chiding she receives from the amalgamates for her transgression, and how readily they agree to let her use Niccoluccio to “spy” on his hometown of Florence for them. Before long, Habidah comes to understand why: the amalgamates’ interest in this plane goes well beyond the academic, in ways that Habidah and her associates would never be comfortable with.
On the surface, the premise of Quietus is austere in its design, its early plot mechanics hinging on the ethical quandry of non-interference. The Unity can easily cure the Black Death, so don’t they have an obligation to intervene? It is a question that science fiction has asked and answered many times, and Habidah’s answer – to intervene on behalf of one person and give that person a role to play in the grand scheme – is an impulsive response, though she believes she can justify its value. The repercussions come not because her choice was an unethical one, but because she was asking the wrong question to begin with. As Niccoluccio digs his heels into the political realities of a society faced with sudden, rapid decline, Habidah continues her work, largely unaware (or at least unwilling to recognize) that she had been facing the same problems all along. Not being political animals by nature, the question neither of them wanted to entertain was: What obligations do structures of power in a society have to its body politic, and vice versa? And who gets to decide the answer?
Palmgren is the kind of writer that knows how to bait and reward attentive readers. There are points in the first half of the novel when characters behave in ways that seem to contradict their established motives, or when time overlaps from one chapter to the next, but events don’t seem to match up. It’s a bit disorienting because otherwise the story seems to develop in a rather straightforward manner. It all pays off and shows its receipts – and not in the ways you expect. Palmgren isn’t the kind of storyteller who resorts to disingenuous trickery to pull the rug out from under you (as in, “Ha! He was a ghost the whole time!”). Surprises come because the author assumes his readers are as smart as he is and are willing to chase that rabbit down the hole with him.
Quietus is contemplative without being ponderous or overly cerebral. It is intelligent and engaging from the start, carefully conceived as both an intimate character study and a grandly epic adventure. Like its wonderful cover (yes, go ahead and judge it by), it seems to emerge from the mist, bathed in warm light, while its scale is terrifyingly sublime.