Science fiction can be escapist fare to the point of silliness. But it also can be seriously thought provoking, what fans call "speculative fiction."
"Portals in a Northern Sky" falls in the latter category. According to its blurb, "part science fiction, part historical quest and part action thriller, the story involves astrophysics, gold fever, the Alaska Highway, a Dallas drug lord and 'Moby Dick,' among other things."
Author Charles Douglas Hayes sets himself the ambitious goal of writing a cohesive tale encompassing a bit of everything. He begins by dealing the reader a full hand of characters: a lonely trapper, a dying scientist, a cop in trouble, a traumatized Civil War veteran, a disenchanted Wall Street tycoon, a lonely girl on a wagon train and the president's science advisor. They dwell in the 19th century or in the near future, but they share one common trait: All are at turning points in their lives.
For example, financial analyst Bob Thornton has just made a killing in the stock market and concluded he is ready to chuck pursuit of the almighty dollar and search for a new goal:
"Just like that, the best stock speculator in the history of Wall Street gone without so much as a second thought. Bob could feel a growing sense of exhilaration as he caught the elevator just in time to disappear. But Bob Thornton couldn't have cared less. He was off to Alaska."
Thornton leads one plot thread. Another traces a restless family through 150 years, and yet another follows a cynical policeman through the Texas underworld.
Soon it becomes clear that these characters are converging on two points: a remote creek in the shadow of Denali and a meeting in the nation's capitol where the science advisor, James Tall Tree, prepares to announce an amazing and disconcerting technical breakthrough.
The technology, called the Portal System, captures ancient light waves traveling into space and will forever change history:
"Provided there was clear weather and daylight at the time, we will have the ability to observe past events anywhere in the world during the past billion years with the clarity of a sporting event on television," Tall Tree tells a panel of experts summoned to a secret meeting prior to the public unveiling of the system.
Where is the equipment for this vast, clandestine enterprise located? Alaska, of course.
"There were a number of reasons for setting up in Alaska," he continues. "Among them were abandoned remote radar sites and military facilities at about the right distances apart and some very powerful politicians on the appropriations committee."
Hayes fails to develop this remarkable "portals" concept in detail. He uses it as a backdrop to his tale, not pulling it into the main plot until the end. Instead, he focuses on the odysseys, intellectual as well as physical, of his characters.
Using a series of coincidences worthy of Charles Dickens, he pulls together the threads of his story through surprising twists to a shoot-'em-up climax at a remote cabin in the Alaska wilderness.
The suspense and personalities of "Portals" draw the reader in, but are not the most original parts of the book.
Hayes, who lives in Wasilla, has written a series of nonfiction books on self-education and lifelong learning. This is his first novel, and it remains close to his other work.
He includes one character, genial bookstore owner Ruben Sanchez, who serves as a mouthpiece for Hayes' world view. In passages that wax didactic, Sanchez challenges Thornton with meditations on the nature of fate, passionate advocacy of literature and pointed critiques of contemporary American culture.
Hayes wears his opinions on his sleeve throughout the book, including a love of Alaska's beauty, a fascination with Melville's great novel, condescension toward right-wing social commentators and a cynicism about organized religion:
"Whether you want to admit it or not, modern-day religion is about coercion. Christian missionaries travel around the world finding poor people who are virtual prisoners of their poverty, and they give them a little food in order to enslave their minds," he says through Sanchez.
Hayes uses his story as a vehicle to pique people's curiosity and to urge them to become more informed and thoughtful. Even his portal system, with its clear but limited vision of the past, becomes a metaphor for rationally facing the real world around us past, present and future. Don't let the book's apparent length daunt you. Its large print and brisk style make it a quick read, despite its forays into weighty matters.
"Portals in a Northern Sky" will not be everyone's cup of tea. But taken as either an adventure tale or as a point of philosophical debate, it offers a stimulating brew of ideas.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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