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Harbinger by Jack Skillingstead

Thinking back over my life, I am conscious of the fact that I always seemed to miss out on the big picture, whatever it happened to be at the time. I lived contentedly through the 1950s, and learned ballroom dancing rather than going into the wild world of rock-and-roll. The 1960s may have been a drug-soaked venture into the unknown for many Hippies but, apart from alcohol and tobacco, I was never interested in stimulants. Then there was this New Age thing. No-one in my circle of acquaintance gave a hoot. In short, I never tuned into whatever the rest of the world was doing and just got on with my own stuff.

Yet, with Harbinger by Jack Skillingstead (published by Fairwood Press), I find myself having to question what the New Age movement was aiming for. In a sneaky kind of postmodernist way, Skillingstead seems to have woven a story out of threads drawn from what I imagine the spiritual movement was all about. In my mind, it’s one of these holistic concepts where, to put it in a nutshell, everything is simultaneous. Or, if that’s too strong a word, there’s a universal oneness. Having written that, I find myself rather disgusted by the word “oneness”. Monism may have a similar meaning and is a respectable concept but, somehow, my mind balks at the bluntness of the idea that a number can have any kind of transcendent significance. In this, I blame the Wachowski brothers who seem to have ripped One out of its usual meaning and bent it into a new shape, more suitable for their cod metaphysics.

But, back to Harbinger. We could have had a rerun of the mind-expanded, drug-fueled counterculture literature of the 1950s where Kerouac, Burroughs, et al experimented with and validated nonconformism. And there are signs Jack Skillingstead recognises the drive felt by many people to escape the security of suburban life and to become a part of a movement encouraging society to evolve into a better version of itself. In this, he avoids the heat of the rebellion that ran through the late 1950s and early 1960s. The power of conservatism was much stronger then as my choice of ballroom dancing suggests. In the New Age, the “revolutionaries” felt they were pushing on a more open door. They believed soft power could see them through. Except, of course, like any organism, society evolves more slowly than many expect. Society is an autopoiesis, organising itself and growing at its own pace. So what would it take to accelerate this process of growth?

Jack Skillingstead now has us consider what would happen to our inherently conservative world if there was incontrovertible evidence of something impossible. This goes beyond mere faith. There would be verifiable proof of an anomaly — something that should not exist. This, he asserts, would be a harbinger, a sign of things to come. This, he would have us believe, would open the mind of the world to new possibilities and encourage the process of change. Indeed, if the harbinger was sufficiently dramatic, it might encourage a paradigm shift in our belief system about what is possible.

The book develops out of the concerns demonstrated in Jack Skillingstead’s excellent collection, Are You There, capturing the uncertainty of those who might be on the verge of evolving and gaining new abilities. More importantly, it takes “Transplant” to heart, providing a context for the story. It’s always interesting to see how an author first captures ideas in short stories and then builds a novel around them. In this, we have a seamless transition with the result a pleasing journey through the mind of a person cut off from the world in which he lives.

Think of this isolation as being an act of self-defence. Once you were forced to accept you could not die of natural causes, how could you face making any permanent relationships if those you loved were going to die? This retreat would be more complete if you were also having problems with grief, having lost your mother and older brother in a car accident. You would build a wall around your emotions and never want to let them out. Once inside this prison, you would crave blindness, both physical and emotional. Indeed, allowing your body to be harvested for spare parts would be a form of self-punishment. You never asked for this regenerative power. You cannot deny it. But you can stop living for yourself. Except. . . Except, of course, circumstances change and there may come a time when you see you should trust yourself to handle the potential pain of accepting yourself and others.

I think the metaphorical bus episode goes on slightly too long at the end. I can understand the hero’s need to travel through the landscape of the past to get where he needs to go. It’s a necessary part of bringing the grieving process to an end. But we could achieve the same effect of forgiveness in fewer words. Nevertheless, overall, this is a very satisfying first novel and well worth the price of admission.

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