Neil Rushton’s Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun is a timely and accomplished first novel. It might seem odd to review this book at Skunkworks, but Rushton’s novel touches on shared concerns in its treatment of transhumanism, alternate realities, and the non-human intelligent entities, Faeries.
The book is timely, in the first instance, because of the character of the narrator-protagonist’s life. He is a broken soul, depressed and suffering a kind of PTSD following the sudden death of his mother and sister in a car crash. His unresolved grief culminates in a psychotic break while waiting in line in a shop landing him in a psychiatric ward. When the story proper begins, we find him released and living alone and friendless, eking out his life on a combination of government assistance and freelance webdesign, self-medicating with cannabis and, most importantly, psychedelics, given him by a shadowy, semi-official figure, Ober. Despite the extremity of his condition, the narrator is a Millenial type, depressed, medicated, and living precariously, whose typicality is reinforced by his remaining anonymous.
The novel is germane, further, because of its thematic concerns: psychedelia and entheogens, transhumanism, nonhuman intelligences, and, more traditionally, because of their inescapability, suffering and mortality. Without giving too much away, the novel plots the narrator’s treatment with increasingly experimental psychedelics under Ober’s, and soon his colleagues’, care. As one might well imagine, as the treatment progresses, what is real becomes more precarious and amorphous. The deftness and delicacy with which this aspect of the narrative is dealt is one of the novel’s stylistic accomplishments.
The narrator’s treatment and attendant visionary experiences introduce another timely topic, transhumanism. But, unlike the simpleminded, techno-utopian version of Ray Kurzweil, Rushton envisions, or so it seems, given neither the reader nor the narrator are sure of what is real or not at any given time, a transcendence via entheogenically-driven evolution. The plot is haunted, too, not only by visions of the posthuman, but of the non-human. Weird, protean intelligences appear throughout, impish, defamiliarized versions of the folkloric Faery, here turned to a more modern or postmodern significance. Rushton’s uncanny re-imagined Little People bring to mind David Lynch’s unsettling, daemonic inhabitants of the Black Lodge. And anyone acquainted with the evergrowing body of entheogenic literature will be reminded of the entity reports that compose one part of it.
In more conventional, literary terms, the emotional heart of the book is the narrator’s unresolved grief and the attendant need to come to terms with mortality. Beneath the theatrical trappings remarked above (nevertheless, a not unimportant part of the novel’s architecture) is the process of the narrator’s painful and harrowing exploration of the painful frailty of human connection, familial and otherwise. One risk the novel takes is in its attempts to employ the extremes of the plot as a means to defamiliarize and so make new its heady thematic and emotional content.
And it’s just here in how ably this otherwise apparently unassuming novel carries off this difficult task that its more literary artistic achievements shine. Despite being a novel of first-person introspection and profound experience, psychedelic and emotional, the plot never bogs down, an accomplishment in its own right. The growing disorientation of the narrator over the reality of his experiences is deftly handled so that that confusion is vividly represented but without ever confusing or frustrating the reader. Despite the gravity and complexity of its concerns, the novel is constructed with a sly, intertextual irony, drawing on Shakespeare, Byron, Lewis Carroll, pop culture, folklore ancient and modern, and other sources to weave the plot’s materials, which, as they are slowly revealed, complicate, intensify, and lighten the reading experience.
In the wake of the French Revolution’s descent into the Terror, trust and hope in Progress or the sudden advent of a new world or age both faded. Writers, then, struggled to understand and render this new, obscure relation to time, history, and endings, composing in answer works without a clear ending or even, sometimes, beginning, novels and poems where reality and imagination, realistic prose, fairy tale, and dream, all served to blur the meanings of ‘vision’, most notably in those works of Romantic Irony, such as Novalis’ unfinished and unfinishable novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, forerunners of those forays into postmodern undecidability, such as the novels of Thomas Pynchon.
Rushton’s Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun is a deceptively unassuming participant in this tradition, equally our condition. It combines the perennially, personally urgent matters of death and grief, the real material conditions of millenial life under neoliberal capitalism, a more overarching concern with the fate of humankind, and speculations about knowledge and reality all within a narrative equally introspective and plot-driven, woven of an ambivalent tissue of the present moment and the literary inheritance. Rushton’s book will find a home on the bookshelf, beside titles by William Burroughs, Terrence McKenna, and their fellow travellers.
Neil Rushton. Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun. London: Austin MaCauley, 2016. 289 pp.
Neil Rushton is an archaeologist and freelance writer who has published on a wide variety of topics from castle fortifications to folklore. Recently he has been exploring the confluence between consciousness, insanity and reality and how they are affected through the use of a wide variety of psychotropic drugs. His first novel, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, explores these issues to the backdrop of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd. He also writes a blog-site devoted to the mythology and reality of the faeries: https://deadbutdreaming.wordpress.com/