Heath Ransom, the main character of Jamil Nasir’s new novel Tunnel Out of Death, is an endovoyant investigator, which means he uses his enhanced sense of empathy, combined with futuristic immersion tank technology, to solve mysteries and track people in the etheric world. While trying to find the consciousness of a rich comatose woman in the astral sphere, he encounters something he’s never seen before: a black tear in the not-quite-reality he accesses during his investigations.
Inexorably pulled into this odd black tunnel, Ransom’s mind enters the body of a young man who has just been given a drug overdose in an attempt to make his death seem like a suicide. While inhabiting this unfamiliar reality and body, Ransom discovers that the initial investigation he was contracted for has much farther-reaching implications than he could have possibly imagined….
Tunnel Out of Death is a spectacularly bizarre realities-within-realities story. The obvious comparison is Philip K. Dick: the down-the-rabbit-hole structure, the frequent doubt whether the reality the main character perceives is real, the combination of vaguely defined technology and paranoia, the androids who are almost indistinguishable from humans. Even the title sounds like it could be a hitherto undiscovered work by the grandmaster of existential alienation.
Unfortunately Tunnel Out of Death falls far short of that level. As an exploration of the nature of reality it’s interesting. Jamil Nasir actually pushes the envelope here, taking some of these metaphysical concepts as far as I’ve ever seen in SF. As a novel, however, it has too many flaws to work.
On the plus side, Jamil Nasir skillfully evokes an interesting future by throwing small but significant references to new technologies into the story. Early on, a character discusses a new religion saying “they have their services in a lovely half-size replica of St. Peter’s Basilica in a sub-basement of the Bank of China building,” effectively forcing readers to scale up their imaginations in just a few words. When Ransom’s assistant chides her employer for taking an emergency appointment, she says: “You’re supposed to get your blood exchanged and your lymphocyte firmware upgraded this afternoon.” Jamil Nasir understands how to use small details to paint a big picture.
It’s a shame that the implications of endovoyancy and Ransom’s travels between various realities are never explained with the same economy of words. Instead, the author frequently attempts to explain them in rambly sentences, such as: “If the substrate of your consciousness were not a meat creature full of evolutionary tropisms and aversions, would consciousness still be better than unconsciousness? Without the impersonal biological urges that used you as a disposable tool of species proliferation, would you still use being over non-being?”
This type of wandering, vaguely stoned-sounding discourse even creeps into the dialogue:
“I don’t know what it was, but what it seemed like was—I don’t know. Nothingness—but as if everything and its opposite had come together and canceled each other out, leaving just absolute absence of anything anywhere.
“Except that everything and its opposite combined is also everything—everything in potential form, do you see? That’s what I saw. Everything and nothing together, pure empty potentiality.”
I confess that I found it somewhat reassuring when, after another handful of sentences in this vein, the speaker concludes with “Does that make any sense?”, and the reply is a simple, one word “No.”
To be fair, the concepts Nasir explores in this novel aren’t easy to summarize. The whodunit-like plot that sets off the story is mainly a vehicle to get to a place where the author can explore an almost mystical understanding of reality that touches upon religion, science, psychic abilities, artificial intelligence, human mutation, alien lifeforms, and much more.
The main problem is that, as the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that that exploration of ideas takes precedence over everything else, and that telling a good story sort of fell by the wayside. The mystery that starts off the plot drops from the radar for a while when it becomes clear that there’s a much farther-reaching plot, but that plot is so utterly bizarre and incongruous that it practically invalidates what came before.
The novel wraps back around to the initial mystery, but by then it’s clear that it wasn’t the real point anyway. Towards the end, the story dissolves into the mystical insights quoted earlier in this review, making it feel as if entire sections and plot points were incidental to the academic noodling about the nature of reality.
This impression is reinforced by the fact that the only character whose background is explored in any kind of detail is Margaret Biel, the target of Heath Ransom’s investigation. Even the main character and narrator, Ransom himself, lacks depth and mainly feels like a vehicle for ideas and lecture-style dialogue. All others are basically props and, in a few instances, are treated like props: one character has an almost human-seeming android girlfriend; a not-quite-living sex doll, basically. There’s something incredibly icky about the way she’s described: her status lies somewhere between human, animal and object. This aspect of the novel left a bad taste in my mouth.
Still, there are also moments that are truly memorable. There are a few instances where Nasir effectively pulls the rug out from under the reader, calling into question everything that came before, creating the spine-tingling sense of doubt that Philip K. Dick excelled at. There’s a tremendous scene set in a parking lot that’s also a transitional reality of sorts, in the style of the hellwalks in Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. There’s a section where the protagonist ping-pongs back and forth between two realities for such a long time that my head was truly spinning. Jamil Nasir stretches this type of story and setting to new limits, which is admirable in itself.
If you’re in the mood for a novel that explores the same kinds of concepts Philip K. Dick frequently dealt with (and that occasionally feels like the product of PKD’s mind around the time he thought a sentient pink beam of light was sending him messages), Tunnel Out of Death will scratch that itch. It’s not every day you read a novel that casually throws in sentences like“You reified an astral sensorium” or “It had been years since he had last died, and it was shocking.” I enjoyed the high-flying metaphysical concepts Jamil Nasir explores in Tunnel Out of Death, but in the end the novel felt like a missed opportunity.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on April 12th, 2013.