Syzygy by Michael G. Coney
Ballantine Books, 1973
Price I paid: 90¢
The Planet Arcadia has six moons, describing erratic orbits. But once every fifty-two years, the Moons of Arcadia come together in a constellation that creates havoc on the surface—raging tides, storms…and worse.
For the inhabitants of Arcadia are themselves affected in some strange way by the unusual gravitic pulls. Or so it would seem. For few on this new, recently colonized world can remember exactly what happened fifty-two years before; those old enough to remember are curiously reticent.
And meanwhile the Moons grow closer…
This is a bold new addition to our ongoing series about Blatantly Misleading Covers.
We start off on the front. That lady is nekkid. She is in fact so very nude that her nipples came off. That’s the best explanation I can think of. Her hair does not cover enough boob to prevent us from seeing nipple unless a) they point outward, b) they are very tiny, or c) both.
“What’s the point of this naked lady?” I hear you asking. “Is she relevant to the plot?”
Well, sort of. I think that the lady depicted here got thrown into a refrigerator about six months before the book kicks off, so she’s the main thing on our hero’s mind throughout the text. This book is roughly 1/10 murder mystery, which is a neat idea.
The back of the book is misleading, too. It makes it seem like one of those plots where “the planets line up” or something and that unleashes the cosmic radiation field and throws the planet into chaos. Maybe it causes natural disasters, or just causes power outages, or something like that. That’s what I was expecting. But you know what? I was surprised. This book was a darn fine piece of science fiction, and fairly hard science fiction at that.
Our hero is named Mark Swindon. Everything takes place in first-person from his point of view, which made it pretty difficult for me to figure out what his name was. In a way that was a result of decent storytelling. He lives on a colony world, Arcadia, with a small population. There was never a time when he was required to introduce himself, and the author was smart enough to never have to write in a line that said, “As you know, I’m Mark Swindon.”
Mark is a professor. He focuses on fish and aquatic wildlife. His job is extra important because Arcadia’s surface is about 90% water. Fishing is the main source of income and food for his colony, and his job is to make sure that nothing ever happens to it.
Recently he’s had a bit of a problem. About six months ago his fiancée, Sheila, died. It looked a lot like murder, but it was ruled an accident because there was no evidence of foul play. Sheila was well-loved by everyone else in the community, and enough people thought that Mark did it that he’s become a bit of an outcast. Not helping things is that he’s gotten friendly with Sheila’s younger sister, Jane. Some people think that the friendship is less than platonic. They are wrong until the end of the book.
The colony is gearing itself up for a repeat of an event that happened 52 years ago. See, Arcadia has six moons. Every 52 years they line up in a particular way. This is only the second or third time in the colony’s history that this has been observed, so it hasn’t been studied much. In fact, everybody would just as soon forget what happened the last time. We get a few tantalizing hints before the whole shebang kicks off, but as it is, all we know is that people got pretty nasty.
For a long time it seems that there’s no connection between Mark’s personal problems and this looming planetary disaster. And for the most part, there isn’t. Sheila didn’t die during a lunar alignment, so that’s not the explanation. Eventually, though, as the alignment kicks off, the effects of it cause Mark to wonder if he might just be able to solve the mystery.
The colony’s economy and survival depends on a fish they call the “fatty.” It’s basically just a fish. The fatty’s diet consists mainly on “plankton,” which aren’t the same as plankton on our planet. On Arcadia, the plankton are more like tiny shrimps. And there are a lot of them.
There are also “blackfish,” which are kind of like sharks.
As the moons line up, Mark notices a significant increase in the amount of plankton. He also notices an increase in the number of blackfish near the shore, which is odd because the plankton and the blackfish don’t have much to do with one another. It is a mystery.
It all has to do with the lunar alignments, of course. Here’s the thing, while the back of the book makes it seem like the planet was going to be overwhelmed by a cosmic mystery force or something, it’s a lot more sensible than that. Arcadia doesn’t normally have strong tides. With six moons all pulling in different directions, it’s difficult to have enough gravity going in any particular direction for there to be a major tidal effect on the planet. However, once they start to line up, the tides can get pretty wild.
See, I really like that. The author did a good job of thinking about how a planet might be different from our own in fundamental ways and then extrapolating some effects that might come from it. It’s not about a mysterious crystal living at the heart of the planet that refracts the beta-pi-sigma rads. It’s just some moons that occasionally all end up on the same side of the planet and do their thing.
And then, to make things sweeter, our author thinks of how that might affect the wildlife. Namely, it turns out that the plankton breed on a 52 year cycle along with the tides. And that’s where things get weird.
I’m making it sound like the book was a long list of “And then we discovered X” without much characterization, and that’s got some truth to it. Honestly, that’s the part I liked. There was more, mainly Mark moping around because he misses his dead girlfriend, which is understandable but tedious to read.
And then the Relay Effect kicks in.
It all starts when Mark and some colleagues are looking in the water at the plankton. They see something nobody had ever seen before. It’s like some kind of ball of stuff. It’s definitely organic. It looks like it might have some plankton floating around in it. One of Mark’s colleagues tries to poke it with a stick and then gets a psychic shock that knocks him on his ass.
The mystery comes together pretty quickly after that. They figure that these blobs are related to the plankton. Specifically, they are a defensive measure that the plankton use when the breeding period starts. They are also smart.
Man, what a neat idea for an alien intelligence! I love this! The plankton have an intelligent but temporary phase in its development! The species gets smart long enough to breed, and then gets dumb again! Intelligence is just a tool!
Mark starts referring to these globules as Minds. There’s a problem. The Minds are psychic and can defend themselves. They also seem to set up what they call the Relay Effect. People’s emotions end up passing through the Minds and then broadcasting to whoever’s nearby. This leads to anger, and fights, and murders, because nobody knows what’s going on.
It’s like this: Take two random people. We’ll call then Alejandro and Beth. They’re friends. They’ve known each other for a long time and gotten along for most of it. Then the Relay Effect kicks in. Like everybody, friendship doesn’t preclude the idea that there are tiny little things about each of them that annoy the crap out of the other.
So Alejandro is talking to Beth and she does that thing with her teeth that he hates. Unlike most of the time, his annoyance is broadcasted and Beth picks it up unconsciously. And then we get a feedback effect. Beth is annoyed at Alejandro for being annoyed at her. And then it escalates and the next thing we know it turns out that Beth is sitting atop Alejandro’s headless corpse.
Now extend this out to a few thousand people. That’s what happened last time the lunar cycle kicked off like this, and also why so few people were willing to talk about it. They seriously didn’t know what was going on and would sooner forget it.
But at least this time around we have Mark to establish what’s up. So he goes to town to let everybody know. The effect has started to kick in for reals now, and since the colony already has some antipathy toward him for several reasons, he gets run out and taunted. Some people accuse him of making the whole thing up.
I wondered if maybe the book would launch into a mindfulness meditation seminar, telling the characters how to examine their own thoughts and feelings in a detached way without getting caught up in them. That would have been neat. After all, a lot of what the people did in this book didn’t even seem like they were under an alien influence. A lot of it was just people being people. Most of the time we don’t need psychic alien intelligences to help us behave irrationally, especially in crowds. The book does dabble with the idea, but not to an extent that I would have liked.
And yes, I am an advocate for mindfulness practice, even if it makes me feel like a hypocrite because I only remember to do anything about it every, oh, two weeks or so. It’s becoming a buzzword, but I feel like it goes to show that not every buzzword is necessarily bad. But only this once.
The Minds’ power grows as the book progresses. The Relay Effect grows stronger, for one, but the Minds also become aware of the humans and learn that they can affect them in one way or another. This is bad news.
I like that the Minds aren’t evil monsters. They’re a self-protection mechanism for the plankton and they’ve likely been around for millions of years, but now we’ve got humans getting all up in their shiz, which of course is what we do the best, and the plankton are adapting to make sure we’re not a threat.
Some kid from the colony discovers a root that helps to dampen the Relay Effect. It also produces euphoria and is completely nonaddictive, which just screamed deus ex machina to me. In a way that’s true, but it doesn’t solve all the problems, at least.
As the story comes to a climax, it seems that the Minds have gotten themselves a pretty good idea. They’ve subtly influenced most of the people in the colony, including the local preacher, who now has a gospel of Universal Cosmic Purpose and is leading everybody ominously toward a part of the ocean where there are a lot of blackfish.
In case you were wondering, the Minds psychically use the blackfish to keep the fatties away from the plankton while they’re trying to breed.
Mark tries to find a way to stop the colony from killing itself. Fortunately he doesn’t really have to. It turns out that the place where everybody is about to kill themselves is where Sheila was discovered six months before. Everybody has a sort of unconscious fear of the place. Suddenly, a blond figure appears. The figure looks a lot like Sheila. Everybody goes freakin’ nuts and tries to run away all at once. It turns out at the end that it was actually Jane, who figured putting on a long blond wig and scaring the crap out of everybody would short-circuit the mental effects of the Mind and let them regain control for a minute. It worked.
In that moment, though, one member of the crowd gives of a strong psychic emanation of guilt and then it turns out that he’s the guy who killed Sheila.
Mark and Jane realize they love one another and decide to live happily ever after.
This book did a lot of things right. I am really happy that I read it. Even the ending wasn’t awful.
I will say that the characterization was a bit flat and there wasn’t much of a sense of place to the setting. I had a hard time imagining anybody and a harder time imagining the setting. This is not unusual for me, though, since I don’t have much of a visual imagination. I’m working on that.
Still, I like that the story relied on some tolerably hard science (okay, I know that psychic stuff doesn’t belong in hard science fiction, but I’m willing to cut it some slack) to get its point across, and also did it by creating a situation that was truly alien. It also did it without becoming too heavy-handed and trying to be all “See? Look what happens when MAN goes where he SHOULD NOT GO?”
This book is one of several loosely-connected ones that, from what I can gather, all take place on this planet. One of them is called Brontomek!, which I’m going to assume is about a mechanical dinosaur that goes amok. I look forward to finding that one.
5 thoughts on “Syzygy”
I like your review style, Thomas. Very authentic :). Would love to feature your reviews in our weekly curated email digest that goes out to thousands of people.
Well, wow. This does sound like an interesting and well-considered book.
I admit the cover’s keyed to just what I look for in 1970s secondhand books.
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Sounds like really good premise, uneven execution.
(I gotta keep that premise on file for one of my Freelance Traveller world writeups…)
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I have had some great luck with Coney in the past! Track down more of his stuff… I’d read this one.
I bought the ebook when you posted this, but only now got around to reading it.
The narration is good; it does leave the characters kind of flat, since only the narrator has interiority … except when the Relay Effect exposes the other characters interiority to the narrator, which is actually really neat.
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