The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic
Volume 1, Number 5 (1998)
HERE to return to the table of contents.
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
"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
"Like no mountains, Omry Inbar thought, anywhere in the
"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.