YMIR, Rich Larson’s new novel, just came out, and I read it in one sitting. The book is a very intense read, despite the fact that the main character, Yorick, is very unlikeable, but there is a type of reader who finds intensity likeable, sympathetic.
I speak of intensity and sympathy because the French translator of YMIR, Pierre-Paul Durastanti, chose to describe his experience of reading and translating the novel the adjectives “intense” and “sympathetic”. I think this will apply to any reader of the novel, provided we let the intensity of style and plot free us from any desire for identification.
Philosopher Gilles Deleuze in his book DIALOGUES links the experiences of intensity and sympathy from a philosophical perspective, citing the work D.H. Lawrence as an example of their deep affinity. According to Deleuze, sympathy and antipathy are variations in a field of intensities where identity is irrelevant.
The Deleuzian formula for going beyond fixed reference points is “ undoing the face ”. Yet, from the beginning of our story, Yorick is already deprived of much of the identity that makes us acceptable: half-blood, traitor, disfigured face (his lower jaw is missing) – he is extracted from an anonymous mass of quasi-corpses, and the first reaction his extractors have is to call him an “ugly fucker” and to spit on his inanimate face.
During the course of the novel, Yorick (who is not even an anti-hero, since he must learn that he is not at the center of the saga which is woven around him) oscillates between sympathy and antipathy. He spends his time dissolving what little stable identity he has left in all sorts of drugs (there’s even Hyena, a military “sympathy” drug, to induce unreasoning team loyalty).
Against the stereotypes that have been deployed in the book’s promotion, YMIR is not at all a modern reprise of BEOWULF according to the canons of science fiction. Our “hero” (quite unsympathetic, as we said, but we quickly learn why) Yorick arrives on the planet Ymir believing that he is living yet another (the twelfth) iteration of his personal saga of hunting “ grendels ” (note the plural ), but he finds himself rapidly embarked on a series of detours that take on more importance than the destined line he thought was all traced, and slowly his putative memories and his supposed motivations are undone, deconstructed.
The reader at the beginning of this story may believe with Yorick that he is living, in a more than human saga, the eternal return of his heroic quest for revenge and his predestined outcome, but there are from the beginning clues that make us doubt the veracity of this first impression.
The protagonist is not called Beowulf but “Yorick”, whose famous skull features in our stereotypical memento mori. Yorick, in HAMLET, is not a hero of life but a dead jester. His skull is a symbol of mortality, but also of futility. We pass from epic to tragicomedy.
The monster to be slain is not Grendel, a fateful adversary with his own name and individuality, but “a” grendel, an anonymous scourge among the many grendels left as guardians by the “Ancients” (aliens of vastly superior technology, who disappeared in the distant past). Yorick has already killed eleven grendels.
Thus, we have gone from the singular saga to the plural ballad, but there still remains a feeling of inevitability. Yorick must learn to make room for others in his personal myth, to put himself into perspective:“he realizes it was never his ballad. He was never fated to be here”.
YMIR, despite its naive appearances, is a meta-saga that imitates a saga at the beginning, but only to deconstruct this simplistic form at the same time as it deconstructs the illusions of the “protagonist” (whom we have just seen is not one). He understands that his life does not follow invisible tracks towards a fixed and inevitable destiny.
Through this disillusionment and decentering Yorick experiences a positive disorientation:“The sudden lack of invisible rails is dizzying. Quantum branches are spreading out in all directions, shifting and melding and splitting like the shapes in the ansible’s electric sea”.
Note: “the ansible” is a Big Dumb Object, an enigmatic monolith, left on the planet Ymir by the vanished Ancients.
In conclusion, YMIR is a post-cyberpunk planet opera (I haven’t said anything about the evil “algorithm” that subjugates all the natives (who are themselves quite unsympathetic) to exploit the planet’s mineral resources). I chose to spoil without spoilers, hence my somewhat abstract remarks – but the novel is not at all abstract: the characters, especially Yorick, brawl, sweat, stink, get drunk, overdose on multiple drugs, betray, cry, curse, and above all rebel and revolt. For the revolution rumbles under the “Reconciliation”, the regime of exploitation imposed by the algorithm which ensures the hegemony of the Company.
We meet our (anti-)hero, the aptly named Yorick, in the first chapter, in a state of artificial death, “torpor”, induced for interstellar travel. He is clinically dead, but not legally a corpse:“Bodies churn in a slow current around the reactor, tangling and untangling, a drifting mass of frosty flesh. They are skeletal, emaciated from the long haul, and their skins are coated a slick milky white by the stasis fluid. They are clinically dead, but not legally corpses”.
In short, a kind of technological sub-zombie. In this state he inspires disgust, but with his prosthesis he is at least visually bearable, except for the missing part of his face:“He’s small, pallid-skinned and dark-haired. He has no lower jaw: between the blue curve of his upper lip and the rippled flesh of his throat there is nothing but medical membrane”.
Yorick wanders, drunk, stoned and disoriented, on a planet whose “Cut” (the name given by the natives to Reconciliation) mirrors his own cut, the gaping hole in his face no less than in his soul, blindly believing in a destiny that is constantly thwarted by increasingly unpredictable accidents and reversals. His revenge “saga” turns out to be a mess.
We will end up finding him sympathetic (a little).