Back in August I read a review of The Pillars of Eternity by Barrington J. Bayley on SFF World. I found the review so intriguing that I promptly ordered a copy to read for myself. While waiting for the book to arrive circumstances forced me to move homes, so when the book showed up I had to set it aside. Finally, after weeks of work I found the time to read this short novel and I must say it was an interesting experience.
If you are unfamiliar with the name of Barrington J. Bayley, I would not be surprised. He was a friend and colleague of Michael Moorcock and while he wrote several very good science fiction novels and many short stories his name never seemed to reach the heights they should have. Bayley started publishing in the 1950s and after becoming friends with Michael Moorcock became a New Wave science fiction writer. His first novel, The Star Virus was not published until 1970.
The Pillars of Eternity, Bayley’s tenth science fiction novel, opens with the introduction of our main protagonist, Joachim Boaz. Boaz is a self-styled ship’s Captain at a time when the term Captain is an anachronism. However, Boaz uses the title as way to differentiate himself from the other ‘common’ shipkeepers; to mark himself as a unique individual in the universe. He is a deeply brooding man whose gone through a terrible ordeal. However, he thinks he has a way to change things, not right now, but in the far, far future.
Joachim Boaz started life as a child with terrible deformities but luck happened to allow him to change his life. Impressing a bone maker Boaz was taken from his impoverished surroundings and through many surgeries and alterations, given a new body. A body that would allow him to become the tortured individual we first meet. We later learn it is these very bones that make his future pain possible.
Boaz has a plan to alter his past by using time travel but not in the way we traditionally see it. In the Brilliancy Cluster there is a fabled planet that wanders among the stars in some unknowable path and now, after centuries, the planet Meirjain has been spotted and there is a race to reach it before the government intercedes to close it down until it disappears once more. On the planet Meirjain, among its many wondrous things, are purported to be time-gems that can show and possibly alter the future.
Joachim Boaz’s plan is a dangerous one as all research and questioning into time travel is forbidden by the Econosphere, the name for the governing body, and has only one punishment, death. All the same Boaz takes the risk and after finding the elusive Meirjain he locates a hoard of time-gems. This hoard, though, is protected by an Ibis-headed 4-dimensional alien species. This guardian make an offer with a choice for Boaz that would allow him to accomplish his goal but with an impossibly high cost. The rest of the story unfolds after Boaz makes his choice and the results, while not unexpected, lead to a sudden and perhaps unsettling culmination.
The Pillars of Eternity is a short novel that owes more Michael Moorcock and Mervyn Peake than it does to Arthur C. Clarke or Alfred Bester. It is set in the very far future, however, it could just as easily been set in a fantasy world with very little alteration. This is something I find common among many of the stories written by New Wave authors of the 1960s, a blurring and blending of setting.
Packed within its meagre 159 pages is a high concentration of ideas, both scientific and philosophical. The Pillars of Eternity contains many competing philosophies about how we can view the universe. Bayley touches on many different types of philosophy but none of them too deeply. Which is just as well as there are periods where the plot gets bogged down by philosophical exposition.
Just because the book is short isn’t to say it’s not well written. Quite the contrary; The Pillars of Eternity is written in a classically conservative style. Bayley is wonderfully expressive without excessive flowery or wordy descriptions. He lets the reader fill in the blanks as we see fit. This is they type of writing I enjoy the most since it allows my imagination to stretch to new places.
Concerning the protagonist, Joachim Boaz, he is an intensely driven character with a single goal in mind, however, he never achieves the obsessive single-mindedness of Gully Foyle in Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. Where Foyle was a base and vile character that grew, Boaz is an enlightened and educated character that is stagnating. It’s the stagnation that Boaz is trying to overcome.
I also saw elements of Michael Moorcock’s character Elric in Boaz. Elric required the aid of spells, potions and the sword Stormbringer to aid in keeping him alive. Boaz requires to be in constant contact with his ship in order for it to keep him alive. Beyond a certain radius Boaz would rapidly die. Whether this similarity was intentional on Bayley’s part or simply because of his association with Moorcock, I’m unsure.
There are a couple of points which let the book down, though. Outside of Boaz himself, the other characters that populate the story are rather thin and one dimensional. Each character as a single viewpoint or reason for being in the story and as soon as they are not relevant they are dropped and never heard from again. If many of these characters had been combined into one or two fuller characters I think it would have made the story that much more enjoyable.
There are also a couple of rather off-putting sexual elements to the story. They don’t seem to have any real relevance to the plot other than to highlight the Boaz’s moral difference. I hesitate to say superiority since Boaz isn’t necessarily a very moral character for any reason other than his actions suit his purposes at that moment.
The ending of the novel was ultimately lacking for me. It was sudden and inconclusive. Certainly we can each decide how it ended, but the controversy would not be great enough to warrant any interesting discussion on the subject. The reader can view it in one of two ways, it seems to me, and beyond that, nothing. Which may have been Bayley’s point.
The Pillars of Eternity is a difficult book to recommend too highly. It is not light enough to say it’s a fun book to read, nor is it deep enough to give it much meaning. There are many points of interest throughout the story, but it’s a bit like being on a rather dull coach-tour with a few must see attractions to keep you going. I would say if you have never read Barrington J. Bayley prior to this book you might want to try one or two of his others before tackling this one. It does reward a certain type of reader, but it isn’t for the casual science fiction fan or novice. I would suggest starting with his novel The Garments of Caean or the surprising Eye of Terror which is set in the fictional Warhammer 40,000 universe.
While The Pillars of Eternity is not my favourite novel, nor do I think it’s Bayley’s best novel, it is a good little book that will satisfy a certain type of science fiction fan and quite a few fantasy fans as well. If you are looking for something short and cerebral that lets the reader think for themselves I would certainly recommend The Pillars of Eternity as a book to read.