Area X meets Duncan Jones’ first and finest movie Moon in a marvellously mystifying novella that wants to know what it means to be human in a world where people can be constructed like sculptures shaped from clay.
X is one such person; the last in a line of such people, even, although almost all of his predecessors, helpfully arranged alphabetically, persist within him. “X was the most recent, the closest to the surface; there was nobody beyond him. And yet he was folded in on himself, damaged.” Being more metaphysical than physiological, that damage is on display from word one of The Warren, which purports to be a record—though it is far from reliable—of X’s pitiable existence:
I am writing on paper because I have seen the way that sectors of the monitor and other recording devices can become corrupted and whole selves, as a result, are lost. I am trying to leave behind a record that will survive. Apparently, judging from the passages that I do not remember but which are nonetheless written, I am not the only part of me writing this.
Never mind for the moment our protagonist’s matter of fact manner. Clearly, “something is quite wrong,” and that something has to do with the many competing personalities X carries, at least one of which is unwilling to lie back and think of Britain. “I am working against myself,” it dawns on X on the day when he wakes halfway out of the Warren. “There are parts of me ready to betray me, and I no longer have clear control over them, particularly when I sleep.”
X is unsettled in another sense as well. The raw materials he could make use of to manufacture another man—a Y, I’d imagine—have run out, meaning that unless X determines an alternative, he will be the last living thing. So it is that X soon suits up and leaves the relative safety of the only home he’s ever known, such as it is, to scour the planet’s scorched surface for more viable matter.
What he’s looking for he finds, kind of, when he happens upon a chamber that houses another human—a human like but unlike X, “not constructed but rather procreated through the fertilisation of an ovum by a sperm and its subsequent development in a womb.” Horak’s story, when it’s told, has our central character questioning his every assumption about himself, and the other beings in his body clamouring for control over their host.
What X is, for him to have so many selves, is just one of The Warren‘s many mysteries. When he is, why he is, where he is, what happened to everyone else—these questions and more come up over its concise and impeccably controlled course. Easy answers are not the order of the day, I’m afraid, which will make this well-judged work of fiction frustrating for some, but a few solutions are alluded to, and they are singularly satisfying.
Discovery for us as readers is piecemeal and unpredictable, just as it is for X himself. What revelations there are are conveyed in what appears to be a haphazard manner, but The Warren‘s broken story mirrors the broken being at its breast brilliantly, revealing fragments of fantastical narrative in the same breath as expanding our understanding of X as a character:
Since I learned most things in a way that I have come to feel would not be considered normal for those who might read this record, my sense of balance and order is sometimes far from perfect. At times, I become confused about the order in which things should be told. Parts of me know things that other parts do not, and sometimes I both know a thing and do not know it, or part of me knows something is true and another part knows it is not true, and there is nothing to allow me to negotiate between the two. The monitor can help if I ask the right questions, but in many circumstances it just adds another layer of confusion so that whatever is being choked or stifled is even more so.
In addition to this, and the unreliable nature of our narrator, there is a powerful sense of strangeness at play in these proceedings—a notion that nothing is as it seems that grows and grows as we pile assumption on top of assumption, all the while aware of the mistake we’re making. “The feeling that you, or rather I, are at once dreaming and remembering and simultaneously doing something as if for the first time” is just as decentering as it sounds. And “that terrible rapid construction of the world around you, but not as a new world; instead, as a world already known, already seen,” is practically peerless here.
I’ve had my ups and downs with Brian Evenson’s work over the years, particularly with his tiresome tie-ins, but The Warren has all the intensity and intelligence of his tremendous 2009 novel Last Days. It may well be the best thing he’s written since.
The Warren is available now from Tor.com Publishing.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.