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The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 5 (1998)
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Lost Souls in Motion:
The Transmigration of Souls by William Barton

Reviewed by Kerstin Ketteman
Copyright 1998 Kerstin Ketteman

The Transmigration of Souls, by William Barton. 1996. ISBN 0-446-60167-5, $5.99. 411 pp. Warner Books, Inc., 1271 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

William Barton's The Transmigration of Souls is a generally well written, conceptually ambitious thematic turn on the future rule of Earth by aliens. Wait, hang on ... this is not the usual retread of a dystopian futuristic nightmare. In fact, through SF, the author concerns himself with philosophical questions about mortality and time. He also has a great deal of "fun" with the shifting of empires, nationalism, religion and xenophobia.
If you are at all interested in these questions, then The Transmigration of Souls is well worth your time and effort. Yes, I did say effort. The narrative is complex, and although the novel intrigues me, this reader was not necessarily pulled into the story. Perhaps the book's premise fed into hope for a creative descendant of Philip K. Dick, whose relatively obscure Time Out of Joint kept me awake and enthralled until 3:00 a.m. In fairness, Barton is a relatively new author, and his work demonstrates a great deal of skill and promise. His descriptions are vivid:

"Sunset again, a few small, high clouds striated with red-orange, sun setting beyond distant mountains, throwing the land into deep shadow. Distant mountains, blue mountains, with high, snowcapped peaks, towering though far away over rugged, dry, rolling highland plains.

"Like no mountains, Omry Inbar thought, anywhere in the world.

"Standing on top of a tall hill, looking out over an impossible world, looking down on the others, watching them try to build a campfire, he felt a tightness in his chest, a ... shortness of breath? Something like that. Just fear? Or real?" (105)

Omry Inbar and Astrid Kincaid are the main characters in a cast of thousands (OK, not that many, but it was sometimes hard to keep them straight). And in this future world there appears to be very little room for human emotion. This may or may not be a deliberate device, but again the Devil's advocate might ask: Can the reader stay interested in characters who show no real emotional depth? Are we expected to empathize with Astrid and Co.'s curiously antiseptic and prim series of "zipless fucks" in "inner" time and space?

With few exceptions, most of the male characters' physical traits are fleetingly described in ordinary terms. Yet every female worth mention is centerfold material, described in anatomical detail: face, breasts, crotch, long legs (not necessarily in that order). One woman even poses as a lesbian in order to ward off male co-workers' sexual advances and ostensibly to attain higher social status by osmosis into pseudo-masculinity. So, can this be read as a commentary on the difficulties sexually available women have in high-powered working environments? Or is it more juvenile fantasies about who women are and what defines them? You decide.

Ambivalence aside, I do like Barton's novel, inasmuch as it deals with mortality and power plays. It makes you think about the present and future. And if you legitimately prefer your sci-fi to be high concept and on an epic scale, then The Transmigration of Souls is a book for you.

The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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Copyright 1998 Kerstin Ketteman
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