The 3rd book in the Alaska sci-fi series is a wild ride – but many elements come close


On this rock: Volume 3 – Consider Pipnonia

By David Marusek, Stack of Firewood Press, 369 pages, 2021. $ 19.95 paper, $ 9.99 electronic

It’s been four years since David Marusek released the first volume of his magnum opus, “Upon This Rock”, and a lot has happened in the meantime. Marusek began writing the ongoing sci-fi series, set in Alaska, while a semblance of normalcy still reigned in America. Not anymore. And as soldiers of our nation battered through a series of traumas, the third book in the saga, “Consider Pipnonia,” perhaps has more significance than perhaps even Marusek himself expected.

First, a brief history. The series takes place in the fictional town of McHardy, Alaska, a clear replacement for McCarthy, where weird facts are brewing. There, a fundamentalist Christian family with the adopted surname of Prophecy settled down to fight the National Park Service and await the apocalypse. If this sounds familiar to anyone who lived in Alaska in the early years, it should. The patriarch of the family, Poppy Prophecy, declared himself a prophet of God, beyond the reach of sin. But in practice, he is guilty of the same crimes that his real inspiration committed.

The action, however, involves this looming apocalypse. Aliens have landed, a planet named Pipnonia is rushing through space on a collision course with ours, and Earth is beset by earthquakes, volcanoes, and other natural disasters that, at the time of this volume opens, have more or less caused the collapse of civilization.

In volume 3, this is only the beginning.

The other story that runs through many of these pages concerns the arrival of refugees from Lower 48 who flocked to Alaska in search of safety from the coming cataclysm, safety they believe the attractive Christian governor and state fundamentalist Vera Tetlin offered.

Tetlin herself tries to save her own skin, which involves escaping to a dungeon occupied by the Prophecy family, a deep and huge mine shaft carved into a mountain. Meanwhile, one of the daughters of the prophecy, Deuteronomy, who is called Deut, has been approached by the aliens or by God to try to avoid disaster by traveling to Pipnonia, accompanied by a local ranger. named Jace Kuliak, an atheist who falls in love with her.

Elsewhere, in McHardy itself, refugees have gathered behind a white supremacist and push people aside and kill those with darker skin, only to clash with the Alaskan militia that Tetlin supports.

Does this sound complicated to you? He is. Marusek bit so much that it would be easy for this tale to fall apart before it begins. That he succeeds is an accomplishment in itself. That he succeeds in talking about our current dilemma shows just how timely his theme is.

Marusek tells of endless twists, many subplots, countless characters and endless catastrophes. Along with militias and fundamentalists, there are space travel, time shifts, deaths and resurrections, and other standard fares for science fiction. How he will tie all of these threads together through the conclusion is a question we will have to wait for the answer to. But in a series that has wandered far beyond the genre’s expected boundaries, this volume is the least sci-fi to date. It’s a journey that can sometimes seem a little too close to reality.

Much of the action takes place on familiar ground, as the characters jostle each other in the face of impending disaster. Marusek worked on this book during the pandemic and madness that swept across America in 2020, which at various times felt like an actual apocalypse to many. And whether it’s intentional or a coincidence, player actions on the pitch will certainly sound familiar to anyone reading this book.

As Pipnonia crosses space towards Earth, Jace tries to work with the aliens to avoid disaster. You could say he represents the rationalists we’ve seen trying to prevent deaths during the ongoing pandemic, using the best evidence available. Deut and his family, meanwhile, along with Tetlin and others, see the approaching planet as the wrath of God on fallen humanity. Others dismiss it all as a hoax, even as the ground rumbles beneath their feet.

Again, if this sounds familiar to you, it probably should.

What Marusek accomplishes with his juggling act, however, is remarkably thoughtful. He does not miss his position in the spiritual versus secular conflict that he explores here; he’s a scientist from start to finish. But where a minor author would use the characters he pulled from real life like straw men and women to fight, Marusek digs deep into their motives and thought processes. He displays a sensitivity to the opinions and fears of the Prophecy family and the Governor that allows them to emerge as fully developed individuals in this story, and not as stereotypes. He may have pulled the basic material for them from well-known Alaskans, but at this point, they’ve taken their own lives.

So the book, along with the series, develops into a rather fascinating examination of the different ways humans react to chaotic and frightening situations. And in doing so, Marusek also highlights our political and religious divisions, which no one denies have widened. Poppy Prophecy is a truly awful man, but others, whether religious or atheists, are complex. And they have to find a way to work together. Maybe we should too.

Like it or not when he first designed this series, “Upon This Rock” has become a parable for our time. In my review of the first volume, I described it as Alaska’s strangest novel. Since then, reality has caught up with Marusek’s vision somewhat. We are not faced with catastrophe, but we are tested as a nation and as a world. What Marusek has done is show the humanity of a range of people trying to cope with the unknown. And he wrote a hell of a good story in the process.

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