Tentacles of Dawn by Robert Wilson
Major Books, 1978
Price I paid: none
The stranger awakes and the world is dark.
Intelligent humans live near the protection of their caverns. They carry torches dipped in oil and live in fear of the beasts and horrors that creep in the dark world beyond. At times they glimpse gigantic dramas being played by powers beyond their understanding—means of light streaking across the black sky and strange, rumbling mountains slowly moving through the dark.
The stranger gropes his way down through the living nightmare until the Prophetess appears to him in the bowels of the earth. Together, they begin a drama destined to change the surface of this future world.
This week’s read is brought to you by Morgan Maloney, a reader who came across this masterpiece and asked if I wanted to read and review it. One look at the cover and I was like YES. YES YES YES.
I mean, is that cover great or what? Some guy is fighting a giant bat, as is common, and the lady in red is in severe danger of slipping out of that tight red dress, as is also common. I could find no information on who did this amazing cover art.
In fact, there’s very little information about this book at all. According to the ISFDB, Robert Wilson (Not Robert Anton Wilson or Robert Charles Wilson or any of the dozens of other Robert Wilsons) wrote two works of science fiction: this book and a 1945 novelette called “Vandals of the Void.”
Wait, hold up. We’ve got a major development here. I just did a little more research. This is big.
This book is by Rainn Wilson’s dad.
My source for this is Wikipedia, although I saw some other mentions of this fact around the Internet. I can’t find a video of this, but Rainn confirmed this fact on the March 22, 2011 episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live! and even read an excerpt.
Oh my god this changes everything.
Well, not everything. The book is still terrible.
Also worth noting is that the publisher of this book, Major Books, existed for only about four years. It looks like the most notable author they touched, with the exception of Rainn Wilson’s dad, was L. Ron Hubbard, and that looks like a reprint of some short stories that they probably paid pennies for the rights to.
The cover of this book, while great, is pretty misleading. There’s only one instance of some giant bats, and there’s no raven-haired boob-holder with a dangerously skimpy dress and fingers on one hand that are distressingly long. It looks like she’s about to plunge them into the ground and take root or something.
So our hero, Unnamed Hero, wakes up in a weird room. He has no idea what’s going on. He doesn’t know who he is, what he’s for, why he’s here, or anything of that nature. The book even states that he doesn’t know the names of things, but he is aware, on some undefinable level, that he knows several languages. Basically, he’s got no memory except for things that would be narratively convenient.
He wakes up and is immediately broken out by people who seem pretty fierce. He’s taken prisoner by them and put among some people called the Deformed. The Deformed are slaves to the Painted Faces, who rule this part of the world with a combination of brute force and magic. A group of Deformed have taken to calling themselves the Devotees, and worship a Prophetess who lives in a cave.
It’s worth noting at this point what kind of world we have going on here. For one, it’s dark. There’s apparently no sun or moon or stars. The book never explicitly comes out and tells us what’s going on here until the very end, when that question gets answered along with every other question over the course of about two pages of expository dialogue. Still, at the beginning of the book it’s actually handled quite well, and we have to figure out that things are dark and that everybody just takes it for granted. There are people who have “dim vision” and can see a bit further into the darkness than others, but on the whole people are confined to small areas around fires.
Our Hero ventures into the cave at one point and sees some crazy stuff. There are the aforementioned bat people who attack him and never come up again, and there’s also Fraka, a tentacle creature who is able to use its tentacles as humanoid shapes to interact with people. It later turns out that the Prophetess is just one of its tentacles, but only Our Hero knows about that. When Our Hero meets Fraka, he’s told that he needs to find the “Egg” that he was in previously and bring it here, because it’s important. Why is it important? We don’t find out until the end.
There’s a lot that we don’t find out about until the end.
Basically the plot of this book is
- “Oh wow, I just woke up. Who am I? What’s going on? What am I for? Am I supposed to be doing anything?”
- 200 pages of wandering around
- “Cool, thanks for telling me.”
At one point a Bruteman named Mo-Tung, a sort of hairy horned giant person who I envisioned as looking a lot like the Mugato, “kills” the Prophetess. Since the Prophetess is just a tentacle, we and Our Hero know that no real harm has been done, but it first despairs and then galvanizes the Devotees into doing whatever Our Hero wants.
Just before the Prophetess “dies,” she names Our Hero “Morning.” This is a dumb name for a lot of reasons. Sure, I know it’s supposed to be important. He’s bringing light to this dark world or something. But it’s also a confusing name, because we get sentences that start like “Morning arrived…”
There’s one point where “Morning led the prisoners toward the mountains…” or something like that. I lost the page it was on. In another book this might be a pretty great sentence. It effectively and emotionally paints a picture of some people following the dawning sun toward some mountains to the east. In this book, though, it’s just a matter-of-fact statement about a dude leading some other people toward a place. The place probably wasn’t even to the east.
In fact, the geography of this book is pretty vague. I guess that makes some sense, considering that it’s all covered in darkness and no one knows what’s going on, but we’re never given any directions, or distances, or anything.
So the Painted Faces have a guy in charge of the Deformed. He’s named Zarko and he ordered the assassination of the Prophetess. He comes up with this plan to end the Devotees once and for all. He sends a messenger to say that he wants to parley and that all the Devotees, ALL OF THEM, need to meet up in this one particular chamber of the cave ALL AT ONCE. Figuring that this isn’t an obvious trap, everybody heads that way. At one point Mo-Tung shows up again and is all “HAHAHA YOU FOOLS YOU’RE HEADING RIGHT INTO A TRAP!” The response is, “Well, that was weird. Keep walkin’.”
So of course it’s a trap. Zarko tries to flood the cave and wash all the Devotees out. Some people die, but the survivors head up to the surface and do some real damage. Zarko is captured. Morning lets him choose between dying and helping out. Zarko joins the party.
This kind of thing happens not once but twice more. Morning’s method of defeating enemies is by doing just enough damage that he can truthfully say, “We won’t kill you, but if you don’t cooperate with us, you’ll die anyway.” And it works.
Weird how Morning says he has no memory of the past but he’s carrying out American foreign policy like it’s second nature.
Morning and Zarko head up to deal with the Painted Faces. They win. Their leader, Pylox, joins the party, along with a young woman named Assandra. You can tell that she can read the future by virtue of the fact that her name is basically Cassandra. It’s through her that we learn a bit more about the Painted Faces.
Namely, they paint their faces with a supposed reflection of their soul. While at first I assumed this meant they all had a sort of Gene Simmons/Lobo thing going on, we get this wonderful bit of exposition:
Her face was small and round and painted heavily white. Her lips were painted green, and large blue circles decorated her eyes. Two spots of orange touched her cheeks.
So now it’s Morning, the Devotees, and the Painted Faces trekking across the darkness. It turned out that Pylox didn’t have the Egg. He gave it to the Wagon Women.
So they go meet the Wagon Women.
Everybody gets captured, although Zarko betrays everybody when the Queen of the Wagon Women makes him her King. He goes back when he learns that after she gets bored with him, the Queen will kill him and trap his soul in a necklace.
The Wagon Women drop everybody off at a thing called the Watcher of the World. Everybody thinks it’s some kind of terrifying monster, but it turns out to be a big computer whose goal is actually to save humanity. It does that by killing them.
Well, not really. It has a strict rule against killing people. Probably something to do with the First Law. You know how it is. So instead it just gets people to kill themselves so it can use their spirits to fight a war on the ethereal plane.
This just got weird.
The war is against the Dark Invaders.
Okay, think for a moment about some Dark Invaders. Picture them in your mind for a moment. Get a real clear picture of what Dark Invaders in a Dark World would look like.
I bet you they don’t glow in the dark like these ones do.
These guys are basically just generically evil and kill people, but the Watcher has been fighting them for untold centuries in both the material and ethereal planes. People who refuse to sacrifice themselves are doomed an eternity of boredom.
Morning and crew don’t want anything to do with that, so they escape. At least at this point we’ve learned about some big doings going on in this world, but it really just doesn’t seem to matter all that much.
A lot of the rest of the cast stayed behind with the Wagon Women. See, one of the Devotees has gotten it into her head that she wants to convert everybody in the world to the religion of the Prophetess, so she’s trying to do that with the Wagon Women. It’s already worked on Zarko’s people and the Painted Faces. She’s doing pretty well with the Wagon Women.
When Morning and Zarko and everybody escape from the Watcher, the thing just disappears. This leads everybody to think that, even if it was a weird evil computer, at least it was fighting against the Dark Invaders, so things might be getting worse in the near future. The Wagon Women suggest everybody go hide out with yet another group called the Primitives. Everybody heads that way.
It turns out that the Primitives aren’t actually people, it’s just Farka again.
So, having successfully delivered the Egg to Farka completely on accident, Morning gets told what’s up for the remaining two pages of the book. In short:
- Farka is actually a machine, like the Watcher, who controlled the weather.
- One of the things it did was put a big dome over the whole world for some completely unexplained reason
- It forgot how to open that dome
- Morning is also a machine and he has the information on how to open the dome
- So they do
And that’s the really unsatisfying ending of the book, except for a little coda that I hated because it’s the most cliché coda ending ever: the one where an old man is sitting on a hill in the sunshine and a little kid goes “Tell us again of Zarko and Morning and Assandra, grandfather.”
So that’s the book by Rainn Wilson’s dad. A large part of it was really dumb, with people doing things for reasons that didn’t make any sense, but I feel like I left out a lot of the dumbest parts because they didn’t stick in my head very long because the book was also really boring. It’s another one of those entirely forgettable narratives that just won’t stick in my head for longer than a few minutes. All throughout this review I had to go back and see what order things happened in, what people were named, and all that jazz.
This is all unfortunate because despite the slow start, the book actually started to pick up right around the whole Watcher bit, or so it felt at the time. Lots of times it felt like the book had some promise, but it just went evaporated into the darkness. There were hints that something big was going on and that our ragtag group would be a part of it and maybe learn something about how things got this way, and in a way that did happen, but only in a “Hey let me tell you straight-up in the last two pages what you were too bored to be wondering about” kind of way.
Still, I want to thank Morgan for getting this one to me. It was certainly an experience, I’ll say that.