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Radix by A.A. Attanasio
I’ve been grabbed, shaken, run over, wrung out, and lifted up by Radix. Attanasio’s masterpiece is a breathless piece of science fiction that is at once shackled to its own time period while also transcending the time in which it was written and perhaps even ideas and concepts of humanity and science fiction itself. I hate when reviews are just a bunch of superlatives and concepts, but these are my initial thoughts on this remarkable book.
Okay, taking a step back, it’s surprisingly simple to offer an introduction to Radix. Published in 1981, its initial scenes read very much like something out of Blade Runner’s world. It’s a somewhat dark, gritty urban landscape in which our main character, Sumner Kagan, scrapes a living by with crime and hate. I thought I saw where this was going, sensing shades of a similar story to Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside. Like that fantastic novel, Attanasio sets up a kind of coming-of-age that’s less a coming-of-age story as it is a revelatory journey. But the similarities end there as Sumner goes through stark landscapes one after another, ultimately coming to an awareness of self that transcends reality as we know it. Helped along by encounters with transhumans and AIs, whether for good or ill, Sumner turns into an ever more remarkable man from the hate-wracked boy we encounter at the earliest stages of the novel.
The story of Sumner is unrealistic at times and maybe even comically overdone occasionally. But Attanasio’s style and genuineness makes every page worth turning even as one rolls eyes at the occasional blunder. The slew of characters that show up throughout the novel each of their own quirks. The number of locations in the novel isn’t huge, but each feels fully fleshed out and somehow both eerily familiar and utterly alien. Readers need to have a strong willingness to suspend disbelief, but the novel just keeps providing reasons to give it the benefit of the doubt at every turn. And the payoff towards the end is huge.
The best science fiction, in my opinion, makes readers think about themselves and our world in new and unexpected ways. Radix demands that on almost every level. Certainly, by the end of the novel, our views of the world are challenged and even shaped along with Sumner’s. Attanasio’s blog reveals a deep interest in global spiritual practices and, particularly, storytelling as a way to discover the self. There’s no doubt in this reader’s mind that Radix was a journey of self-discovery for the author as much as it was for the character Sumner. Moreover, Attanasio calls and challenges readers to embark upon their own journeys. Read this book.
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