"The Warren" Book Review
Written by Matt E. Lewis
Published by Tor.com Publishing
Written by Brian Evenson
2016, 96 pages, Fiction
Released on September 20th, 2016
In 1637, Descartes wrote a concept in The Discourse of the Method which would come to be known as the idea of cogito ergo sum: "I think, therefore I am". It represents the realization of a man who has transcended the doubts of consciousness and the limit of understanding, to a very obvious but inherently complex answer. In Brian Evenson's latest novella, The Warren, the narrator labeled as X knows he exists. He also knows that his predecessors exist as well, represented by dozens of pairs of eyes which watch his every move, occasionally using his body for their use. He knows the Warren, the space he has lived in his entire life, and he knows the Monitor, the Siri-like device he can pose questions to when he reaches the limits of his predecessor's training. He knows that Horak, a man frozen in a stasis chamber just outside the Warren, exists and that he is a human person. But after freeing Horak and having fundamental principles challenged, X is haunted by the query: what am I? Am I a person? Am I human? Or more importantly, as the Monitor chillingly articulates when he poses this question to it: "What do you mean by, 'person'?"
Evenson has been writing what could be called "existential horror" for years – the kind of stories full of fundamental shifts of reality, so much so that 'normal' is not the kind of space the narrators have a chance to return to. It indifferently blends the elements of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror together into works that are seemingly free of overt references to popular culture, something that personally irks me and drags me out of a narrative. They are, in a word, 'different' from the usual fare of genre, and written by someone whose focus may be on literary writing, but uses the elements of style from various fields to heighten his work, the way a chef would use a pinch of spices to enhance a meal. His previous story collection, A Collapse of Horses, also features a sci-fi horror tale called "Dust", a creepy whodunit with filled with the same kind of atmospheric terror you would get from Ridley Scott's Alien. Although "Dust" may share some similar setting qualities with The Warren – man/men stranded somewhere in the vast quiet of space – this novella is a very different take on the kind of story which can emerge.
On that subject, where exactly does The Warren take place? As sci-fi, we would expect that such a desolate landscape, a subterranean metal lair on a Mars-like surface, would be happening on some far-flung planet in some far-flung timeline because of some far-flung interstellar war. But thankfully, Evenson keeps those details hidden, adding to the suspense and mystery of the location and its occupants. Could it be Earth, ravaged by some kind of future disaster? The moon? Alpha Centauri? It doesn't really matter, because the focus is more on the mystery of X, with peripheral exposition masked with the pressing, acidic bite of the present. When such exposition is included, it is done so in a very thoughtful, calculated way – it does not inform the reader directly, but makes them think and ignites the imagination. Such a move is a sign of an author who knows better than to bog down the reader with exposition and appeals to their sense of curiosity. The beautiful descriptions of the wastelands above, with its roads of glass and vibrating stone pillars, are enough to get our thoughts going without the need to pin down and dissect exactly what we're seeing. Novellas are so short, there's no point in spoon-feeding pages of details when you can hint instead and keep the reader engrossed for much longer.
What the reader does know is that X is a man of conflict. Pragmatic, but curious to a fault, he risks his life to travel to the surface to free Horvak. He is aware of his roots, of Wollem and the other pairs that came before him and taught him what he needed to know, but displays curious dissonance as to the purpose of his existence and its deeper meaning. While he certainly knows how he got there and what he needs to survive, it is the why that troubles him, an answer that he hopes that Horvak will be able to help him find. Unfortunately for X, Horvak nearly dies in the resuscitation and his presence only complicates rather than clarifies his situation. As the Monitor becomes buggy and Horvak's behavior becomes increasingly erratic, X is forced above ground, where he hikes into the great unknown and whispers of a past he doesn't have the tools to understand.
As a sci-fi novella, The Warren is a radical departure from the kind of space battle narrative we see often repeated ad nauseum within the genre. Instead, it focuses on the kind of existential horror of isolation and doubt, of what can happen when realities are challenged and unexpectedly shattered. Readers might recognize the same kind of existential anxiety in X as it was in Frankenstein's monster, with which Mary Shelly used to create an entire genre. Without giving too much away, twists await at the very end of the novella that parallel with the kind of uncanny that viewers experience with John Carpenter's The Thing. I suggest you pick up The Warren to experience the eeriness for yourself, and perhaps leave yourself wondering the next time you pass by a mirror: "What do you mean by, 'person'?"