Recent Reading: Prophet by Helen Macdonald and Sin Blaché

What is Prophet? Nature writer and essayist Helen Macdonald shocked the publishing world when they announced that their follow-up to books like H is for Hawk would be a science fiction novel co-written with debut author and musician Sin Blaché. In the novel, the titular substance, an accidental byproduct of superconductor research, violates the laws of physics and threatens to undermine reality itself. Prophet induces a state of extreme nostalgia, causing the people exposed to it to manifest objects of a sentimental and kitschy nature—cabbage patch dolls, board games, an entire 50s diner—with which they become entranced. But Prophet may also possess a degree of consciousness and intentionality, altering its behavior in response to the effects it has had, threatening to subsume all of humanity in longing for a past that may never have existed.

From that description, and the novel's pedigree, we might assume that Prophet is mainstream SF. The sort of book that reaches primarily for affect and ambiance, detaching terms from their concrete meaning, suspending readers in a kind of no-place and -time, the better to work through a literalized metaphor.

Well, no. It only takes a few pages of Prophet, with its clipped sentences, sterile, militaristic settings, and preoccupation with acronyms and brand names, to realize that Macdonald and Blaché are working in a completely different register. In these pages, we are introduced to Sunil Rao, a louche, sardonic British intelligence asset who is able to discern the truth of any statement. Imprisoned following a bout of drug addiction, a suicide attempt, and a violent altercation in rehab, Rao is seconded to an American army base in England, where unexplained objects have begun appearing and drawing people to them. Upon arrival, Rao discovers that he will be accompanied by his former handler, Air Force officer Adam Rubinstein, a taciturn, buttoned-down supersoldier who is the only person on whom Rao's power doesn't work.

So, then, Prophet is a technothriller. Beyond its emphasis on action scenes and conspiracy theories, what distinguishes the technothriller from the rest of the science fiction genre is that it usually isn't interested in exploring the implications of an SFnal conceit. Rather, it seeks to bring the otherwordly down to the level of the mundane, fitting it into familiar systems of bureaucracy and influence.

This feels closer to the mark. As Adam and Rao investigate Prophet, they discover a military contractor who has been conducting research into it, exposing unwitting test subjects and logging their responses—almost invariably, incurable catatonia; or, if separated from the object they've manifested, death—which they report on with terrifying equanimity. Before long, Adam and Rao are exposed to Prophet themselves. Their atypical responses, as well as the way they seem to influence the substance itself, make them attractive to the corporate and political forces who are interested in harnessing its capabilities.

It's a generally effective technothriller, buoyed by the weirdness of the Prophet concept and by Adam and Rao's energetic yet bemused pursuit of it. At the same time, it can't be denied that there are infelicities in Macdonald and Blaché's execution of this form, which become more pronounced as the book draws on. A loss of tension around the novel's middle segment, as Adam and Rao agree to work with Prophet's researchers and enter a holding pattern. Certain characters, such as lead researcher Rhodes, who declares herself immune to Prophet because of her diagnosed psychopathy, who are foregrounded by the narrative without ultimately playing a very important role in it. Key ideas, like the plan to introduce Prophet to the US water supply in order to create a longing for leaders who promise a return to the good old days, that are introduced too late to be fully explored.

The further one reads in the novel, however, the more one wonders whether these are flaws, or part of a greater scheme. To put it another way, it eventually becomes hard to tell whether Prophet is a technothriller, or a parody of one. There is what feels like a studied, uniform blandness to the novel's setting, and the spaces Adam and Rao move through. They bounce from meeting rooms to motel rooms to cafeterias. They eat at Starbucks and McDonalds, with a well-regarded local steakhouse as a rare treat. The badness of the coffee, and the occasional highlight of a good cafeteria meal, are always commented upon.

It feels as if a deliberate dissonance is being created, between the weirdness of Prophet, and the banality with which it, and the uses to which its military contractor creators plan to put it, are discussed. Towards the end of the novel, Adam and Rao sit down to a meeting with military officers and corporate honchos to discuss how to infiltrate a zone where Prophet-created objects—now possessed of a rudimentary self-awareness and seemingly hostile intent—have taken over, calmly discussing logistics and materiel even though, as Adam eventually admits to Rao, what they're witnessing is the unraveling of reality.

It's easy to miss this sly needling, because the procedural elements of Prophet are nevertheless compulsively readable. This is largely because Adam and Rao are so much fun to spend time with, rubbing against each other in ways that are at once prickly and deeply compatible. Their investigation is interspersed with flashbacks to both men's lives—Rao's deteriorating mental state as he fails to convince the CIA officers to whom he's been assigned in Afghanistan that the men they are torturing genuinely don't know anything; Adam's childhood under the thumb of an abusive, homophobic father. It quickly becomes clear that they are each other's only real friend—Adam is the only person who seems to value Rao in himself, not as an asset; Rao brings Adam out of his shell—and maybe much more than that. At the same time, it's clear the two men have fundamentally misunderstood each other. Rao has taken Adam's impassive exterior as a reflection of his inner blankness, instead of the self-protective, closeted performance that it is. Adam is sure that he has made his feelings for Rao clear, and that Rao's failure to acknowledge them comes from a place of mockery.

So, then, Prophet is a romance. A particularly fanfic-y romance at that, full of quippy banter, mutual but unacknowledged longing, and barely-suppressed desire (some reviewers have even identified the novel as reskinned Inception fanfic, though to my knowledge, without any confirmation from the authors). The uniformity of the novel's daytime settings doesn't matter, because the real action is happening at night, when Adam and Rao are alone in their motel room with each other, their desires, and their regrets. And yet here, too, there are infelicities. Places where the novel breaks the by-now established rules of the romantasy genre. The two men's exposure to Prophet seems to herald a leveling-up in their relationship, which then fails to materialize. As the novel approaches its end, we keep expecting one or the other of its heroes to broach its unspoken subtext, but they hold off. Adam keeps telling us that if Rao hasn't figured out how he feels about him, there's no point in telling him. Rao seems to recognize Adam's feelings, but doesn't know what to do about them.

There is, to be clear, an obvious explanation for all this. Two mainstream writers decided to dip their toes into genre—into several genres—without really knowing what they were doing, and the result is misshapen. The SFnal McGuffin is mind-blowing, but never fully explored. The technothriller is appropriately laconic and action-driven, but not quite as thrilling as it might be. The romance sets your heart aflutter, but doesn't quite set it aflame. The result isn't exactly unsatisfying—even at its most withholding, Prophet is propulsive, full of satisfyingly weird ideas and compelling character interactions—but keeps falling short of completely pulling off any of the things it has attempted.

So maybe that's what Prophet is: three different things that aren't usually found together, each carried off at around 80% effectiveness, whose combination ends up being unexpectedly compelling and fun. But—at the risk of giving this novel more credit than it deserves—I think there might be something else going on. Because the one thing that Prophet does pull off, the one thing it undeniably is, is profoundly cynical about the security state. This cynicism runs through its SFnal conceit (which is, after all, being developed by military contractors who don't seem to care that they may be destroying the world) and its technothriller flourishes (all that sly needling that borders on mockery) and its romance (which keeps being short-circuited by the action plot, until the closest that Adam can come to saying "I love you" is to promise to get Rao out of a sticky situation alive).

The military-industrial apparatus, in Prophet, is a beast that chews up operatives and takes advantage of their desire to do good (the scene in which we learn the reason for Rao's violent incident in rehab is genuinely gutting). It identifies damaged people like Adam and weaponizes their dysfunction, discouraging them from seeking help or a fuller life. And its fealty is not to a country or an ideal, but to a few billionaires who have plugged themselves into the levers of government, found the ear of a starstruck middle manager who is willing to let them rewrite reality in their own image. "How can anyone believe in America," Adam asks, in what feels like the novel's thesis statement, "and keep their eyes open at the same time?" Prophet ends up feeling less like an SFnal novum and more like an opportunity to open those eyes. For Adam and Rao, it gives them the space to fully understand each other, to find something in life more worthy of dedicating themselves to than duty.

Is that enough? Is it not a little thin for a novel as wide-ranging, whose genesis was as unexpected, as this one? Is it not a little disappointing to us as science fiction fans? Is it not a little dated—the novel's 2010 setting is obviously necessary for its emphasis on Afghanistan and the war on terror, but it makes its political preoccupations feel, if not irrelevant, then certainly incomplete? It is, I think, all of those things. But it's also a genuinely enjoyable read, and completely different from what I was expecting. That feels worth celebrating.


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