Even Adam Smith knew, the market is not kind. And when you have a market saturated by minimum viable products (i.e. easily accessible, watered down slush), then it’s likely the more subtle, intelligent material for sale will be overlooked. In short, I thought the market had chewed up and spit out David Marusek years ago. His stories “The Wedding Album”, Counting Heads, and the like were just too niche, too sophisticated to be appreciated by a wider, paying audience which typically supports writers’ careers. And then last month in NetGalley I find his return. More than fifteen years since his last published effort, David Marusek is back with the first in a planned trilogy of science fiction novels: Upon this Rock (2017, Stack of Firewood Press).
Set on the very edges of civilization in the Alaskan wilderness, Upon this Rock opens at the border of a national park where the park service and a fundamentalist Christian cult are at odds over land ownership. Poppy Prophecy, tyrannical leader of the cultists, exerts control over every aspect of his family’s lives, from clothes to punishments, daily activities to prayer. Preaching the apocalypse is nigh, he prepares them for nuclear winter in an abandoned mine that may or may not be on park property. Jace Kuliak is one of the park rangers caught up in the feud. A hard-working, pot-smoking young man, he finds himself not as passionate about irritating Poppy’s family as some of his fellow rangers, and is content enjoying the beauty and peace of the park and his daily work. But one evening both Jace and Poppy witness a strange light in the sky that seems to descend onto the park. The object eventually found, nothing is the same for the rangers in the aftermath—Poppy’s cult family, Jace, or the world.
With Upon this Rock Marusek does something interesting: he takes a hyper-Christian cult leader and a laid-back, west coast millennial and confronts them with something otherworldy. Poppy assigns the foreign object a mythical Christian value while Jace runs with implications stemming from the numerous science fiction stories he has read. On one hand indicative of the subconscious power of superimposed perception, on the other it rings true to something deeper within each of us, namely the delicate balance between objective observation and the desire to have our worldview substantiated.
Marusek himself living in Alaska, it’s obvious he is all too aware of the antics many fundamentalist groups and the state’s blue-collar leaders get up to, not to mention accurately describing the details of setting and climate of the largely wilderness state. Pacing and structuring the novel well, he steadily draws the reader deeper into the bizarre world of extreme Christianity frozen by Alaskan winter, all the while putting a strong focus on setting, scene and character to prevent the novel from blending in with the rest of the market. The story spiced up by the ‘alien’ element, it generates an escalating mystery begging for explanation. With its all too many real-world parallels to contemporary doomsday cults, the next novel in the series cannot come soon enough for me.
Nothing new has appeared from Marusek in print since 2009, which makes Upon this Rock a very pleasant surprise. One of many non-commercial voices in the science fiction field deserving of wider recognition and readership, there’s a strong chance that readers put off by his earlier, more experimental work will find this most recent novel a more accessible page-turner, as purely in terms of relaxing, reading enjoyment, this is the best of 2017 I’ve read thus far. Welcome back Mr. Marusek.