It’s possible I picked the wrong book to start 2022, but with the way the world is right now, it’s also possible I picked the most apt. Hermetica, a science fiction novella by Alan Lea, is remarkable in that it starts to tell one story and then, at the midway point, takes the reader in a completely different direction. You may think you know where it’s going, but trust me, once you’ve finished you will remember the main character Dase for some time to come. To tell you why would be to spoil the story, but this book, although a quick read, packs a lot into its short length.
Dase is a passenger on the generation ship Hermetica. Fleeing Earth along with millions of others like them, Dase leads a solitary existence where their every need and move is monitored by the artificial intelligence that runs the ship. Every passenger has a job to do, a “compartment” their assigned to, and Dase is a masseuse of sorts. They didn’t do well in aptitude tests taken when they were much younger so this is their lot until they die, which they will, long before Hermetica reaches its destination. Their only solace is Snookums, a stray cat that Dase befriends and lets stay in his room. This is where things change for Dase. Snookums scratches a hole in one of the walls, and upon investigation Dase sees a piece of paper (a product they’re unfamiliar with) which tells of a history that doesn’t match with what Dase knows as truth. So what really happened on Earth? What is Hermetica’s true purpose? Needless to say, other passengers, authorised by the AI, don’t want Dase to take their investigations much further than they already have.
Dase is a compelling character; they don’t define themselves as he or she: they’re simply they, as is everyone around them. When they’re confronted with the concept of gender later in the story, they make a profound argument about how unnecessary binary division actually is. This will no doubt rile a few readers, as it does with one of the supporting characters in Hermetica, but for me, as a reader, I engaged with Dase and their philosophy. The main thrust of the narrative is an enjoyable one, too, but it takes second place to the ideas Alan Lea wants his readers to come to grips with. He describes this quite well in a Q&A he did on the website From First Page To Last. Stuck as we are with the ongoing pandemic, we are all like Dase, compartmentalised, stuck in our rooms, looking at tablets or the like, and not seeing the big picture until it’s literally in front of our eyes, and even then it might be too late to do anything about it.