The seven stories that make up Chris Impey's science fiction/science fact novel Shadow World are distinct but fundamentally inter-related. Each is interesting, sometimes fascinating, and when all is said and done, I think they present us with a uniquely troubling rendering of what it means to be human. It's unusual to divide a novel, ostensibly a coherent whole that conventionally has an over-riding narrative, into separate and, at least on the surface, substantively very different tales that have nothing in common but an off-beat protagonist who goes by the name McEvoy. Why not call it a collection of short stories? Early on, however, the author assures us that the seven adventures are fraught with shared meaning and much less tenuously connected than they seem at first glance.
Following Impey's lead, I began reading Shadow World while keeping a close eye on McEvoy, suspecting that the promised continuity and topical overlap would turn out to be products of his uniquely rough-hewn working class Scottish personality, and the largely uncultivated but powerful native intelligence behind his hard-scrabble demeanor. There are certainly less potentially promising ways to tie together three twenty-six pages of fiction, fact, and fertile imagination.
It's true, moreover, that wherever the stories go -- from The Grand Canyon to Manhattan to Patagonia to the most remote and desolate parts of China to Belfast to Dublin to Southern California to Sweden above the Arctic Circle -- we find McEvoy. This Scotsman and former Merchant Mariner is nothing if not a frenetic globetrotter. The places he visits, however, where the seven stories are played out, are so far apart geographically and so different socially and culturally, that even by focusing tightly on our omnipresent protagonist, patching everything together with a credible degree of coherence surely presents us with a real challenge.
Moreover, each move from one story to another is devoid of what one might call literary connective tissue. How did McEvoy, wounded in a particularly frightening and ugly way in Arizona, get to New York with no evidence of his prior misadventure? The stories start, develop, climax, and close, and then another story begins, but how McEvoy makes the transition from one to a startlingly different other is not explained. Apparently he's well-suited to getting drunk, getting beaten up, meeting exotically beautiful women, and more or less thriving any place in the world, no matter how he got there. All this with minimal formal schooling, knowledge of only one language, English, that he speaks with the unmistakable regional accent of a Scotsman, and occupational experience that is limited to the kind of thing that comes with a working class background.
OK, so the guy carries with him an ingratiating charm, something that makes him more attractive to women and has a down-to-earth, hale-fellow-well-met appeal for men. He's also a bit mysterious, with tattoos that mark him as a man of the oceans and scars on both forearms, patterned in a way that defies ready explanation. In addition, others sense that McEvoy, in spite of his self-confident countenance and obviously quick and capacious mind, is a bit of a mystery to himself.
Eventually, the science fiction and science fact themes emerge as McEvoy meets more and more interesting and learned people. They share with him ideas that are so esoteric as to be almost uninterpretable, and he struggles to meld them into a framework that will explain why he is so alien to himself and so interesting to unusually insightful others. While his insights are striking, I don't find them satisfying. In fact, insofar as I might lend them credence, I find them quite troubling.
Shadow World is an interesting and well-written book that I enjoyed reading and will recommend to others. The author, a professional astronomer, brings to bear a unique perspective on the nature of life and the character of the universe. I may not be happy with the way the book ends or with the nature of the literary connective tissue that makes it a novel rather than a collection of disparate short stories, but that's a purely subjective judgment, not due to lack of skill, insight, or information on the part of the author. After you've read the book, ask yourself if McEvoy really is one of a kind.