Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Fourth Realm Trilogy

The Golden City, the last of John Twelve Hawks Fourth Realm Trilogy books is now available, concluding the series that begins with The Traveler and continues with The Dark River. The story centers around two brothers, Michael and Gabriel Corrigan, who discover that they are each "Travelers," people with the ability to separate their souls from their bodies in order to travel to other realms. Pretty much all of the great thinkers and leaders, especially those with a mystical or philosophical bent, were Travelers. Jesus was a Traveler as were the Buddha and Plato. Many of the revolutionary ideas these figures brought to humanity were learned from their voyages to these parallel realms.

The Travelers have their critics, however. "The Brethren," known by their enemies as the "Tabula," seek to destroy the Travelers who are always talking about ideas like individual freedom. The Brethren wish to control the planet's population through a Virtual Panopticon, also known as "the Vast Machine," an all encompassing surveillance network of cameras and computer databases that will track every movement of every individual under its watch. Thanks to the Brethren's efforts, Travelers have nearly become extinct. Michael and Gabriel are apparently the last two.

Because of the threat of the Tabula and because, when they Travel, Travelers' bodies enter a catatonic state virtually indistinguishable from death, they rely on the protection of yet another ancient organization, "the Harlequins." Harlequins are adept fighters sworn to protect the lives of Travelers from their enemies. Gabriel is under the protection of Maya, a reluctant Harlequin brought up under the merciless training of her Harlequin father. When Gabriel and Maya learn how close the Brethren are to achieving their plans, they realize the Traveler and Harlequin are all that stands between the world its total domination.

The pace of all three novels is fast and the characters, while lacking a bit in individuality, faithfully represent their types. There's plenty of action, lots of sword play, shooting and martial arts. Hawks introduces some strange and surreal imagery when the Travelers visit other realms. This is a tale of good and evil and (with the exception of a few sentences in the final volume) there is no mistaking who is on what side. The evil Tabula is really really evil, with rather dubious reasons for being so. And the good guys are really really good with little motivation beyond saving all of humanity from the really evil guys.

But what's most interesting are the questions about surveillance that the novel raises. As Hawks points out in an afterward of the Traveler, all of the surveillance mechanisms introduced by the Tabula are either in use today or in advanced stages of development. There really is a network of cameras, and a vast array of databases that contain everything about us from our Facebook statuses to our medical records to our credit card transactions. Unless you make a conscious effort to live "off the grid,"--as John Twelve Hawks reportedly does--there is information about you being gathered daily. What's even more interesting is the amount of information we give up voluntarily, through participation in social networks and marketing campaigns. To Hawks, nothing good can come from all of this information gathering. While I wouldn't go that far, I'd say he has a valid point and while an organization as insidious as the Brethren is pure fiction there are those with less than noble aims who can access information that's been gathered on us. Think about it long enough and you'll become permanently nervous.

For other fiction on citizen surveillance, try Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

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