Alexander C. Irvine, The Life of Riley (Subterranean Press, 2005)

Take Escape from New York, mix in an echo of A Mirror for Observers and a generous helping of The Book of Revelation as interpreted by your worst nightmare, and focus very tightly on the crisis point. You're coming close to Alexander C. Irvine's The Life of Riley.

It is the twenty-first century, about 2034; the sea level has risen fifty feet, pollution is pretty much unchecked, society is sadly fragmented. Gabriel Riley's mother has always told him he is the Second Coming of Christ. He thinks she's nuts. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works for the Presidential Protection Service; she's still in Iowa, one of the eleven members of the Narrow Path Salvation Church, who are bent on revealing that the Bettys, the aliens who have become advisers to governments, are nothing more than satanically altered humans -- Genesis doesn't say that God created aliens. They send Truman Throckmorton to New York to disrupt a meeting. The Administrator for the aliens has become aware that there are defections among her people and an active plot to derail the Project: humans were once another race from the Bettys' planet, transplanted to earth several million years ago to avoid conflict and ecological disaster on the Home World. The Bettys are here to guide them back to civilized behavior before they destroy the planet. And somehow Gabriel has become a key element.

Irvine has put together an amazingly potent little story -- it's a novella, published as a chapbook, and coming in just shy of 150 pages. It's elliptical, graphic, edgy but not at all flashy, topical, sharp and very, very sophisticated. Related in four chapters, each focusing on a different character (and none focusing on Bib Riley), the story plays with time and makes the idea of plot almost unnecessary: Irvine has layered events in such a way that the linear narrative flow is almost obliterated -- almost. In formal terms, it makes use of the episodic, cinematic mode that has been used so successfully by writers from Roger Zelazny and John Brunner to Thomas Pynchon, and yet it reminds me most, for some reason, of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, perhaps taken one step farther, tightly compressed and slightly skewed, but with the same sense of viewing a scene repeatedly through different eyes. It works just as well for Irvine as it did for Durrell, maybe even better: at this scale, the architecture of the piece is easier to grasp, if no less awesome.

I was impressed by Irvine's The Narrows. I am equally impressed by The Life of Riley, somewhat smaller in scale but just as quietly dazzling. Yes, yes, yes, go out and find this book and park yourself in a quiet little corner and read it. Right now.

[Robert M. Tilendis]