Books

3rd book in Alaska science fiction series is a wild ride — but many elements hit close to home

Upon This Rock: Book 3 - Consider Pipnonia

By David Marusek, Stack of Firewood Press, 369 pages, 2021. $19.95 paper, $9.99 electronic

It’s been four years since David Marusek published the first volume in his magnum opus, “Upon This Rock,” and a lot has happened in the interim. Marusek began writing the ongoing science fiction series, set in Alaska, when some semblance of normalcy still prevailed in America. Not anymore. And as our battered nation soldiers through a series of traumas, the third book in the saga, “Consider Pipnonia,” has more relevance than perhaps even Marusek himself expected.

First, some brief background. The series is set in the fictional town of McHardy, Alaska, a clear stand-in for McCarthy, where strange doings are afoot. There, a fundamentalist Christian family with the adopted last name of Prophecy has settled in to do battle with the National Park Service and wait out the apocalypse. If this sounds familiar to anyone who was living in Alaska in the early aughts, it should. The family patriarch, Poppy Prophecy, has declared himself a prophet of God, beyond the reach of sin. But in practice, he’s guilty of the same crimes his real-life inspiration committed.

The action, though, involves that impending apocalypse. Aliens have landed, a planet named Pipnonia is hurtling through space on a collision course with ours, and Earth is beset by earthquakes, volcanoes and other natural disasters that, by the time this volume opens, have more or less brought the collapse of civilization.

In book three, that’s just the beginning.

The other tale running through many of these pages involves the arrival of refugees from the Lower 48 who have flooded into Alaska seeking safety from the coming cataclysm, safety they believe the state’s attractive and also fundamentalist Christian governor, Vera Tetlin, has offered.

Tetlin herself is trying to save her own skin, which involves escaping into a keep occupied by the Prophecy family, a deep and enormous mine shaft burrowed into a mountain. Meanwhile, one of the Prophecy daughters, Deuteronomy, who goes by Deut, has been tapped either by the aliens or God to try to avert the disaster by traveling to Pipnonia, accompanied by a local park ranger named Jace Kuliak, an atheist who is falling in love with her.

Elsewhere, in McHardy itself, the refugees have assembled themselves behind a white supremacist and are pushing people out of the way and killing those of darker skin tones, only to come into conflict with the Alaskan militia that Tetlin has backing her up.

Sound complicated? It is. Marusek has bitten off so much that it would be easy for this tale to fall apart before it started. That he pulls it off is an accomplishment in itself. That he manages to speak to our present dilemma shows how timely his theme is.

Marusek spills out endless plot twists, numerous subplots, countless characters and no end of disasters. Along with the militias and fundamentalists, there’s space travel, time slips, deaths and resurrections, and other standard fare for science fiction. How he will tie all these threads together by the conclusion is a question we’ll have to await the answer to. But in a series that has wandered well beyond the expected boundaries of the genre, this volume is the least science fiction like yet. It’s a journey that might seem a bit too close to reality at times.

Much of the action takes place on familiar ground, as the characters jostle with each other in the face of impending doom. Marusek worked on this book during the pandemic and the madness that overtook America in 2020, which at varying times felt like a real-life apocalypse to many. And whether it was intentional or coincidence, the actions of the players on the ground certainly will feel familiar to anyone reading this book.

As Pipnonia slams through space on its way toward Earth, Jace is trying to work with the aliens to avert the catastrophe. He could be said to be representing the rationalists we’ve seen trying to prevent deaths during the ongoing pandemic, using the best evidence available. Deut and her family, meanwhile, as well as Tetlin and others, see the approaching planet as God’s wrath on a fallen humanity. Others predictably dismiss it all as a hoax, even as the ground rumbles beneath their feet.

Again, if this sounds familiar, it probably should.

What Marusek accomplishes with his juggling act, however, is remarkably thoughtful. There’s no missing where he stands in the spiritual vs. secular conflict he’s exploring here; he’s a science guy through and through. But where a lesser author would use the characters he’s drawn from real life as straw men and women for beating up on, Marusek digs deeply into their motivations and thought processes. He displays a sensitivity to the views and fears of the Prophecy family and the governor that allows them to emerge as fully developed individuals in this story, and not as stereotypes. He might have drawn the basic material for them from well-known Alaskans, but by this point they’ve taken on lives of their own.

And so the book, as well as the series, develops into a rather fascinating examination of varying ways humans react to chaotic, frightening situations. And in so doing, Marusek is also highlighting our political and religious divides, which no one denies have been deepening. Poppy Prophecy is a truly awful man, but the others, be they religious or atheist, are complex. And they have to find a way to work together. Perhaps we should as well.

Whether or not he intended it when he first conceived this series, “Upon This Rock” has become a parable for our times. In my review of the first volume, I described it as the weirdest Alaska novel ever. Since then, reality has somewhat caught up with Marusek’s vision. We aren’t facing doom, but we are being tried as a nation and world. What Marusek has done is shown the humanity of an array of people trying to cope with the unknown. And he’s written a damned good tale in the process.


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