I can't say I didn't eventually enjoy 'Street Lethal', Steven Barnes' debut solo novel, but it took a long while to find itself and I'm not sure it did, really. It became the first in a trilogy, so I presume that Barnes had some sort of vision for Aubry Knight. Certainly the last two books about him are the next two novels that he wrote solo. It must have been important.
This I enjoyed a lot more and a lot quicker. It feels as natural as 'Street Lethal' didn't. Even though that book was his third to be published, I have to wonder if he wrote it first and it only saw publication after successful collaborations with Larry Niven, not just those two novels that I've already read and reviewed but also a Hugo Award-nominated novelette, The Locusts). That theory makes sense to me, because this one feels very much like it's a comfortable fourth novel, written after learning from his work with such an experienced co-author.
Beyond the flowing prose, 'The Kundalini Equation' is also fiercely original for a novel from 1986. It's science fiction, but it starts out like fantasy and it kind of dips into the men's adventure genre that 'Street Lethal' was so rooted in, given that it's fundamentally about martial arts, not just the punching and the kicking but the philosophy of it, the ways that it can be used as a self-improvement tool.
They do say that young authors should write about what they know and Barnes knows martial arts very well indeed. He's been studying for longer than I've been alive and he holds black belts and instructor credentials in a variety of disciplines from a variety of countries. In many ways, this novel is the logical science fiction question that arises when watching old Shaw Brothers movies. Obviously, the more you practice, the better you get, but how do you get to the grandmaster level where superhuman feats become possible?
I really like how Barnes answers that question here and that's, arguably, the most important success of the book.
Some of it is explored through scientific study. We follow a young man named Adam Ludlum, who starts the book fat and lazy, though not quite so much as a phrase like that might suggest. Let's just say that he has problems with his willpower, which have contributed not only to being overweight but also to a broken relationship with his girlfriend and another with his father. Driven to get fit to prove that he's worthy of Micki, he agrees to be monitored as he goes through Dr. Culpepper's sports medicine program at the conditioning clinic at UCLA.
Names of scientists like Feynman and Heisenberg show up in the text, as does the telling term "transhuman", which apparently dates back to 1949 but still feels early to me, as I don't recall seeing it in fiction before 1986. These presumably aim to bolster this novel in reality, as do a host of other minor details, because the story always maintains the potential to leap into sheer fantasy.
And some of it is certainly handled in fantastic terms. The opening chapter unfolds in an ancient city, Pah-Dishah, where legends, old even in that time, mix with a forbidden practice conjured up to save the city from northerners who plan to sack it. That we're placed in the Indus Valley in 1,500 BC isn't much of a grounding in anything we can recognise. It reads rather like sword and sorcery, with its mysticism, forbidden knowledge, transformations, glory in battle and whatnot.
And, of course, when Ludlum accidentally taps into this forbidden knowledge in contemporary Los Angeles, we're surrounded by what we might consider the fantasy of modern day life. Micki works at The Good Life which calls itself a bookstore but is really a haven for everything out on the fringe: new age philosophy, herbal medicine and conspiracy theories. Most of it is nonsense, of course, but where else would actual forbidden knowledge show up nowadays?
What else I liked here is how Barnes avoided focusing entirely on Ludlum and his quest to improve himself, which works in ways he never expected and has little ability to control. There are all sorts of subplots that both keep it all fresh and add wider insight. Many tie to Ludlum's various relationships: his attempts to win Micki back after so many broken promises prompted her to leave; his efforts to heal his relationship with his father, who's dying and doesn't have much time; even his abiding friendship with Algernon Swain, who presses him to join the UCLA program. We could even suggest that the single most important relationship Ludlum is trying to fix is the one with himself.
However, some of it ties to a couple of cops and their ongoing investigation into a series of unexplained murders that they're convinced have ties to an apparent cult called the Temple of the Earth Heart. Of course, they haven't been able to prove anything and the killings only get more inexplicable, at least to them. If the cops had been reading along with us, they'd have been able to explain it, if not to a judge.
If the clean prose, original premise and depth of characters wasn't enough to recommend this to you, I also want to praise the fight scenes, which are impressive in ways that I didn't expect. Sure, Barnes has crazy amounts of experience in many styles of fighting, so ought to be able to translate that into fight scenes. He does, but that isn't what impressed me most. It's that he knows that, unlike any random men's adventure novel, it's not really the fight that matters, it's the people who are fighting.
There's a glorious example at Oei's Table, a Filipino restaurant at which a troublemaker sets Ludlum up to fail horribly in a demonstration fight with the owner. The movements are great but what works best is how each of these participants change during the fight: not their styles, but their attitudes and assumptions and outlook once it's done and dusted. It's all about their minds, not their bodies, and how they change during the fight.
If there's a negative side to this novel, it's one that I was actually happy to see. Early in the book, Ludlum switches on his computer, a Sol-20, which was a real home computer, albeit one that had stopped production as early as 1979. Barnes talks about it quite a lot and it really dates the novel. There ought to be a rule that science fiction authors refuse to acknowledge any of the technical details of any computer hardware they mention, because however ambitious it might seem at the time, it'll become laughable very quickly. I love old computer tech, though, so I was happy to learn about a machine of which I'd previously been entirely unaware.
It's been an interesting run so far for my Steven Barnes runthrough and the next book up is another first. After two books written with Larry Niven and two solo, Barnes teamed up with Niven again, plus Jerry Pournelle, for 'The Legacy of Heorot', a 1987 success that prompted a 1995 sequel and, it seems, a concluding third book that came out this week, 'Starborn & Godsons'. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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