I first met Mark von Schlegell in 2004, an eternity ago, on a blurry, neon-tonic night in Los Angeles, probably one of the banner nights for my endless (and this, I admit, is personal) migratory-birdlike longing for a return to California. It was a deeply improbable place and time: a wild, feathered, cavernous warehouse art installation somewhere in Historic Phillipinotown, the creator of which magically died a year later. Von Schlegell was there, a real brother in arms, in Los Angeles for a sci-fi convention. He told me that night something which I’ve seriously taken to heart in the intervening years, which is that no matter how accomplished a man is (like he, ostensibly, an art-critic-cum-SF-writer with an international pedigree and a girlfriend in Cologne), he can never be as cool as a smart young woman. Simply, in the scheme of relative enviousness, nothing beats a cool girl.
I remember, in the parking lot that night, I told Mark I wrote a science column.
“Of course you do,” he said.
And this is my senseless Harlan Ellison-esque introduction to Mark’s latest opus, Mercury Station. I rarely visit with contemporary sci-fi because, frankly, the cover art is bad. But von Schlegell is a great exception, in almost every conceivable sense: someone whose work, by virtue of its willful madness, will probably never explode into the consciousness of today’s piously aggro-nerdy SF scene, and someone who defies genre not out of bravado, but necessity. I deeply love his work. It seems tailored specifically to suit my pleasure receptors. It has the literary fuck-all of Samuel Delany, the hard-nosed attention to detail of Philip K. Dick, and a healthy dose of indeterminate psychedelia permeating everything from his patchwork structure to the plot points themselves, which treat time-travel and noospheric surfing like they’re frying eggs for breakfast.
Mercury Station is about Eddard Ryan, a genetically-enhanced Irish liberation soldier living in an isolated prison camp on Mercury, under the supervision of a condescending computer program called the qompURE MERKUR. Like his counterparts, he’s been unjustly imprisoned on Mercury since he was an adolescent, having long since served out his sentence (it’s unclear, however, if this is part of a larger scheme of “Control,” the shadow organization behind his political effort). One day, an unspecified Event transpires, and Ryan wakes up alone on Mercury with one arm missing and the other holding a mysterious medieval book about an androgynous demon. The novel ping-pongs back and forth between Mercury, where holographic computer avatars modeled on classical philosophers (HYPATIA, PLATO, ZENO, ARISTOTLE) are trying desperately to prod Ryan into decoding the situation, and 14th-century Prussia, where the demon creature romps around killing Teutons and seeking his/her true love. The medieval sections are written in what I would call a “period style,” a grandiloquent, kinda magic(k)al slop of euphemism that Von Schlegell clearly enjoyed writing, while the Mercurial bits take the form of maddening dialogues between Ryan and the increasingly wonky computer system.
That’s part one. Ryan is also in love with a fellow dissident, an agitprop artist named Koré Macallister, who abandoned him during the Event. She, like Ryan and several other key characters, is obsessed with “chrononautics,” a form of time travel which involves detaching the self from the body (psychic, perhaps physical death) and throwing it backwards through non-Einsteinian time via psychedelic conduits, “time’s sex organs,” a fine conceptual invention. So the tale goes this way: did Koré escape the lonely planet’s borstal through time-travel? If so, did she leave him behind for a reason? And where did everybody go?
The whole thing is, for lack of a better word, bodacious: the drunk Ryan goading computer avatars, the gall of killing off a sci-fi baddie with the Black Plague, the unabashed medieval cloak-and-dagger, and, of course, the great von-Schlegell-ian gesture of kaleidoscopic narrative devolution, which occurs somewhere near the end of the book and leaves you (well, me) panting with the dim feeling that if the same passages were re-read a second time, they might lead elsewhere (the latter a pleasure I intend to save for later, when the subconscious detritus of Mercury Station‘s more future-addled stream-of-consciousness chapters fully settles in the noggin). Of course, this is not to say that it’s an easy, or even necessarily enjoyable at times, book to read. A pleasure-seeker, a sci-fi recreationalist, might find von Schlegell’s style, particularly his tendency to include unthinkable wormholes of texts within texts, exasperating — even Freize called it “textual delirium,” although I think the adjective “mercurial,” aptly, suffices. My advice is to enjoy it, and to take a cue from the book itself, which occasionally offers veiled encouragement, as in this passage in which a computer avatar muses on the subject Eddard Ryan’s mysterious medieval book:
ZENO: “We cannot speculate with any useful certainty until you present to us the work itself as a whole, Eddie Ryan. You yourself enjoy digital memory capability; you should appreciate the situation. Until read in its entirety a book is importantly indefinable. A narrative works by change, redefining itself constantly, letter by letter, word by word until the final Finis. Show all of it to us, now, and we’ll be happy to comment on the work as a whole.”
To which Ryan replies, “I don’t do Brit Lit.”
Read my interview with Mark Von Schlegell on the Strange Horizons site.