Friday, February 07, 2014

Questions of Cosmic Significance In Jeff Smith's RASL

He used to be a physicist, named Robert Johnson. Like his namesake from the previous century, he achieved notoriety — for his accomplishments, as well as the many moral compromises made while in their pursuit.

Together with his childhood friend, he has cracked the most powerful mystery behind Nikola Tesla's boldest experiment. He's also slept with his friend's wife, taken money and technology from the military, and sabotaged the lab he worked in, resulting in the disappearance of the woman he and his friend loved.

Now he uses the technology to skip to an alternate Earth, where he steals priceless objects of art, and tags the empty space with his new identity — RASL (“messenger of Allah,” apparently).

He returns to what he presumes is his point of origin, where he fences the works to fund his growing appetite for vice.

He is pursued, of course: by a little girl who seems both haunted and haunting . . .

. . . by his friend's wife, who by rights should not exist on any plane . . .

. . . and by a government enforcer, named Salvador Crow.

Crow's motivations are, for a while, opaque. He appears unconcerned about retrieving the works of art intact, or capturing Rasl alive. Only when he and Rasl meet within military confines, is his motivation made explicit.

Salvador Crow's appearance, demeanour and even motivation bear pointed resemblance to those of another pulp fiction creation: Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane:

Howard's Kane is, in appearance and attitude, a Puritan. He strides forward to vanquish any variety of abomination, unrelentingly confident in his (somewhat smudgy) Calvinist world view. But there is an existential irony in these stories: Kane is too thick-headed a lunk to perceive that he participates, in fact, in a cosmic pagan-pantheist arena, where ancient scores are slowly getting settled.

Sal Crow, on the other hand, vaguely apprehends the significance of Tesla's theory of infinite cosmoses, and Rasl's confirmation of it: humanity's reality is so much smaller, and more precarious, than Crow has imagined. The tensions and ambiguities in the new reality are too great for Crow to bear. Like Kane, he behaves like the god he believes in. Unlike Kane, his behaviour is rewarded with persistent failure.

So humanity is fraught with greater absurdity and peril than previously accounted for: where is the hand of the Divine in all this? If it exists, like everything else, it does so in a previously unconsidered manifestation.

Some questions are answered. Some of the answers raise more questions. Rasl, nee: Johnson, who throughout has behaved with sludgy moral intuition, is fortunate to finally encounter someone whose moral clarity is more grotesque than even Crow's. While the final confrontation is perhaps a bit too tidy (and unsurprising), considering everything that's led up to it, it does still meet the noir standards that Smith adheres to.

An ancient score gets settled, in other words. It's as worthy a conclusion as a reader can hope for, really.

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