09 September 2005

The Fourth Circle by Zoran Zivkovic

Below is the latest in a continuing series of guest reviews. Our reviewer this time out is E. Sedia, whose novel According To Crow was released by Five Star Books in May. Her short fiction has appeared in Analog, Fortean Bureau, and Lenox Avenue, and other venues.

Zoran Zivkovic's The Fourth Circle has been much praised as an intelligent and complex work; for the most part, I found this description accurate. The book is huge in its scope, bouncing across different worlds and epochs. It combines science, religion, and breathtaking imagery into a wonderful read.

In this novel, several storylines are loosely woven together -- all deal with "closing the Circle", or establishing contact between several different worlds. Main storylines take place in widely divergent times and settings: first, there is Rama (a computer program with a surprisingly shrill and female personality) and Sri (her creator and a Buddhist scientist.) The two of them move to an abandoned Buddhist temple in the jungle, and soon are joined by others -- a monkey who accidentally impregnates Rama, Archimedes, Stephen Hawking and other scientific and fictional figures.

Another storyline describes trials of a (Russian?) medieval fresco painter's assistant, an old man who is both fearful and adoring of his master (whose tortured spirituality reminded me a lot of Andrei Rublev.) The assistant describes a struggle between God and devil in his Master's art, and we are given a convincing account of events filtered through a deeply religious worldview.

The third is the last case of Sherlock Holmes; it takes place in an alternate universe, where Holmes is a real character, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a librarian.

Additional storylines are less prominent, and deal with different beings -- spheres, anthropomorphic multi-limbed wolf packs, disembodied intelligences; all are as bent on breaching the wall between the worlds as the main players.

And therein lies the first problem I have with this book -- while the many storylines are fascinating, they don't quite fit together. There are many strange and wonderful things happening, and saying, "Look, they all happen for the same reason" was not quite enough to tie the disparate threads together.

Nonetheless, I quite enjoyed the frequent shifts in space and time. Also, puzzling out all the underlying symbols became a game. Circle obviously provides the main symbolic engine, and it appears in many forms -- Archimedes' famous circles in the sand, roulette wheels, circles of hell, Ludolph van Ceulen's obsession with calculating all digits of pi, black holes, singularity, etc. The book explores both mythological and scientific significance of circles, and uses them as a universal sign capable of bringing different worlds together. The book's structure is full of turns and dead ends, huge and labyrinthine, and I spent many happy hours poking around in it.

My second problem was related to the female characters of the book. When they were not saintly archetypes (Mariya), they were delusional, hysterical, shrewish, or any combination thereof. The only two female protagonists drawn with any sort of clarity were Rama (the computer program) and Sarah (caretaker in the Stephen Hawking episode); both were unbearable. The author leads us to believe that in both personality flaws were due to reading too many women's magazines or romance novels. In the case of Rama, her creator wanted her to have a feminine personality, and presumably achieved it by feeding the program a decade-worth of Vogue. Rama herself constantly refers to her feminine intuition and other stereotypical female characteristics; at the same time, she perceives herself as an organized and logical being. She's a caricature at best.

Sarah fares no better -- soaps and romance novels for her are what magazines are for Rama, and her perception of reality is ultimately distorted by them. I suppose it wouldn't bother me so much if there were a single sane female in this book, but no such luck. Women in this book come in two flavors: unattainable ideal of beauty and wisdom, or a delusional shrew.

Despite these flaws, the book is well worth reading. It is sprawling, bursting with ideas and images, lies so marvelous that they convince with their sheer audacity. It is difficult to put down, or to dismiss it as anything less than a major work.