An Essay by Bill Ectric on Steve Aylett’s Shamanspace
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
“Of making many books there is no end,
and much study wearies the body.”
– Ecclesiastes 12:12
Ecclesiastes is unique among the books of the Bible. It boasts no giants, no flaming chariots, no Satan, and people all go to one place when they die – into the earth. Just the fact that this book is included in the Bible is a miracle in itself. Ecclesiastes is a mirror image to the rest of the canon because its viewpoint is mortal and earthly as opposed to divine and celestial, and that is why I thought of it while reading Steve Aylett’s short novel Shamanspace, with its symbolism of the “mirror book,” introduced early in the story and reappearing at regular intervals.
In Shamanspace, two rival factions, the Prevail and the Internecine, want to assassinate God. They are angry and indignant about all the suffering. The Prevail believe that if God dies, the universe will continue to exist, separate from the creator. The Internecine believe that upon God’s death, the universe and everyone in it will be no more, and they consider that outcome “a small price to pay” (Aylett 119). Both factions have agents/assassins called “edgemen” who are capable of leaving their bodies and merging into matter, travelling as atom swarms along the planes of surfaces like buildings, roads, and even air. Entering higher dimensions through hidden “angles” in the fabric of the universe, they move through cities unseen, like stealthy noir detectives. Edgemen can also enter other people’s bodies and disguise themselves in “shell bodies” to go undercover in the normal world. People born with the DNA for edgework are detected, selected, and recruited by either the Prevail or Internecine for training.
The origin of the edgemen is explained in an Appendix at the end of Shamanspace. Aylett mixes actual history with his own fabricated events and characters, tracing an authentic-sounding timeline of religion, alchemy, astronomy, physics, secret societies, and intrigue. In a way, it reminds me of Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum or Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, but, in classic Aylett style, condensed into a few pages and punctuated by sardonic humor. The Appendix contains just enough truth to seem logical, to give one the impression of discovering a secret history. “Slavers cross-fertilized Yezidism with toxic wicca during the Roman conquests, resulting in angry faces all around” (115), “…see Basil Valentine’s ironically codified text The Triumphal Chariot, in which cypher generates the request ‘Just kill me’ more often than the number of words in the manuscript” (117).
Some readers will be appalled by the idea of “killing God” and may prefer to see Shamanspace as metaphor for the suicidal urge (more on that later) or a commentary on the arrogance of deluded mortals. As always happens when I read Aylett, several thoughts went through my mind almost simultaneously. I thought of Nietzsche’s “God is dead” spiel, and how one of my high school teachers tried to play it down by saying that Nietzsche was only commenting on the growing trend toward atheism. In that regard, she was correct; Nietzsche did not believe God was dead because he did not believe in God. His message was that when people realize they no longer have God as a standard, they either become stronger and take responsibility for themselves, or become nihilistic and open to despair. Of course, you don’t have to lose your faith to be nihilistic. The author of Ecclesiastes moans about “all the days of his meaningless life which he spends as a shadow” (Ecclesiastes 14), but he does seem to rally in the last chapter and ends on an encouraging note. Shamanspace also reminded me of Greek mythology; specifically the story of how giants tried to overthrow Zeus, throwing rocks and flaming trees at him. Zeus turned to Heracles to help him defeat the giants. But let us return to the immediate plot.
The book’s Preface introduces two “edgemen” as they navigate South London, flowing through angular dimensions of “otherspace” on a quest. One of them is Sig, a trainee, young and inexperienced. The other is Melody, a French girl and a well-tuned veteran. Their goal is for Sig to meet Alix, a “living legend” among their kind, for Sig to glean whatever information or advice he can from the damaged hero. Alix had been a brilliant edgeman. “They said Alix could enter the face of a guitar without making a sound” (Aylett 14), but now he was burned out. “(Alix’s) eyes were turns of liquid gold, glistening and unseeing” (16). Eyes like liquid metal is a recurring characteristic of edgemen who have gone off the deep end.
Aylett’s vibrant prose makes the action super-vivid. Sometime I followed the literal plot of the story, but there are impressionistic passages I cannot quite put into words. Some of the impressions I will share in this essay may or may not reflect Aylett’s intended meaning.
Legendary Alix tells young Sig his story, beginning in Chapter One. He recounts how he once entered a bar, disguised in a shell body, “self-brainwashed so that a mind-reading enemy would still be fooled” (Questions). In the bar, he meets a girl, also a disguised assassin, and a doomed relationship begins. He is Internecine; she is Prevail. Spy and detective stories are brimming with men and women from enemy camps getting together for a tangled mix of attraction and espionage. “We went up in a cage elevator somewhere. Her hair hides the phone. After that I lost track of time for a while” (Aylett 22). He wakes up in someone’s apartment. Alix is so deep undercover he has forgotten who he is. He’s been “washing one drug down with another” (21), but a vague memory stirs an instinctive impulse. There is a smudged stamp on his wrist – the kind they stamp on you when you enter a bar – and Aix slits his wrist at that spot.
It is here that we examine the parallel meanings in Aylett’s work. I’ve written before about Aylett’s work having at least three meanings at once. On one level, Alix could be a weary man, tired of living in the fast lane, wanting to end it all. On another level, maybe he is using the knife blade to “wake himself up” or shock himself back to the reality of who he is. Think of the lyrics by Trent Reznor, “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel” (Nine Inch Nails). Perhaps he needed to cut an exit wound to leave the shell body behind. All these things can be true at the same time. It’s like the Interzone concept of William S. Burroughs, as distilled by David Cronenberg in the film Naked Lunch: Bill Lee may be an Inspector on a mission in the Interzone to track down members of the Nova Mob, or he might be a drug addict moving through the streets and alleys of Tangier, Morocco to track down smack. Or both, simultaneously.
Alix gets his bearings and finds the girl asleep in a back room, suspended in a “biomechanical bag, like a cocoon or a closed hammock, which she uses to maintain herself” (Questions). She is an undercover assassin (so is he). He slices open the cocoon and accesses her brain for secrets, any intelligence she may have gathered that would facilitate the mission of locating and assassinating God. In the process, he picks up memories of her childhood, of getting ostracized for being different, able to see things that were invisible to ordinary people: “structures in events…armatures of human need and fantasy anglepoising between the people, linking them in a jagged scaffold” (Aylett 24), her dreams crushed, scooped up by the Prevail as a trainee, and something else: Alix recognized her as a human being. “Something of herself was left, a miniscule mischief which rifled a secret and took it away. Sacred telemetry” (25). The girl dies as her secret thoughts rush into Alix’s brain. It is not clear if this was intentional on his part, and Alix is racked with sobs. He had seen her beauty, identified with her pain, his guilt and sense of loss. It’s interesting that in one sentence, there seems to be a moment of shared thought. We look at the words, “Something of herself was left, a miniscule mischief which rifled a secret (25),” so her mischief included rifling secrets, as if a secret loaded into a chamber ready to fire; or, rifled as in vigorously searched, just as he is rifling secrets from her, and for a brief moment, the middle of that sentence applies to both her and him simultaneously. This is how he obtains the coordinates to the heart of God.
Back at Internecine headquarters, known as “the Keep,” Alix needs some recovery time. Exercising one’s power as an edgeman takes a toll on a person. Physical and emotional. “I was ghostburnt, in mourning and voiding lumps of the cover personality” (29). After a few days, he is sitting in the office of his boss, Lockhart, who is like a father to Alix, for a kind of debriefing. Lockhart tells Alix that Melody is in France, spying on the Prevail headquarters there. They wonder, if the Prevail know the location of God’s heart, why haven’t they made the “hit.” Is it pity? Procrastination? Are they afraid of failure or afraid of what will happen if they succeed? Lockhart wants Alix to visit Quinas, a veteran “has-been” edgeman who is kept in a cell under guard because he is insane. Alix does not relish this suggestion. “I’ve met shamanic burnouts. Some shivering leftover with weird eyes? I haven’t got the patience to hear about some gold-rimmed yesterday” (33). But Alix acquiesces and goes to see Quinas:
I went through the ivied gate to the locked quarters, a guard allowing entry. Quinas was meant to be batshit crazy and acquitted himself well. He sat at the center of his cell like an albino frog, working on some obscure cabbalistic grid, probably a malice puzzle. Proceeding around him was a polychrome exchange, the walls trancing with sickly refractions. His head was sprouted with white death-hairs, and when he turned my way I saw his eyes were liquid mercury, the surfaces flowing like oily water (39).
Alix meeting Quinas can be seen as Alix looking at a mirror image of what he might someday be, just like Sig meeting Alix in the preface of the book.
Quinas suggests that if God is everything, and we are a part of God, then we are God’s suicidal impulse. He tells Alix, “God made us conscious for a reason. It knew that when its cells became self-aware, they’d experience a pitch of pain that’d send them for revenge. We’re nano-assassins” (45).
Quinas gives Alix a book as a going-away gift. It is a book of mirrors called Acqueville’s Flightless Land Without Clouds (46). As Alix is leaving with the book, he stops just outside the door and glances back to see Quinas flickering and fading from sight. Quinas then emerges from the mirror book as a red electric outline and escapes into the city.
Alix track Quinas to Paris, where the Prevail headquarters is located. “This suggested (Quinas) had some business with the Prevail,” says Alix. “I should have known when he referred to the world as God’s ‘moulted material’ – Prevail philosophy” (51). Alix joins Melody in a safe house in the Rue Fromentin. With his edgeman-heightened awareness of connections between essence and matter, he is unnerved by the “left-handed landscapes and cathedrals brittle as candy” (51). The cathedral description is apt – if you look at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Reims, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Nice, or the Metz Cathedral in Lorraine, they do have a cake-decoration-confectionary-sugar delicacy. The “left-handed landscape” comment is a little less clear, an example of Aylett’s impressionist style. To me, it brings to mind the Left Bank of Paris and the traditional “otherness” often attributed to France. The Right Bank of the Seine River is where one finds big businesses and professional buildings, an environment closer to the cityscape of Alix’s exploits in London. The Left Bank is traditionally for bohemian artists and writers (to overgeneralize).
Alix asks Melody for directions to the Prevail motherhouse (headquarters) and:
She pointed in the 9th direction. I took a very deliberate half-turning step which tilted an edge in the air, showing me a dense cross-section of several etheric miles. I raised an arm toward it, the funhouse-mirror limb stretching to infinity, and let it draw the rest of me into subspace like an elastic band (52).
At the Prevail motherhouse, an invisible Alix sees Casolaro, head of the Prevail, talking to Quinas, the turncoat, consorting with the enemy. As they talk, a young edgeman, Moon, senses Alix’s presence. Alix retreats as Moon crosses over into the etheric zone in pursuit. A splendid chase ensues.
Passing the mouth of an alley, I folded down to a single element and streamed sideways into the architecture…Moon sifted in also and we were fleshtones flushing through the walls on either side of the alley – branching up into roofs and undoing bundles of air before dipping into masonry again (57).
I won’t describe the entire chase, but it ends when:
(Alix) slammed to a stop inside a car, slipped upward through the roof and apported, jumping down to the tarmac. Moon materialized too fast, merging with a Volvo – the windows were instantly painted red from the inside and shattered as metal warped out (58).
After resting up in Melody’s hotel room, Alix decides to take his mirror book to a nearby antique bookshop. Alix is saying goodbye to his world before carrying out the hit, and his love of books is evident. I never tire of Aylett’s descriptions of books, bric-a-bac, and curiosities.
Here and there were books produced by cabinet-makers, passwords under the blurbs… Spreading the mirror pages to those of the old books, reflections showed the snail trail left by the author’s bile, invisible behind the print. ‘Our secret broken law,’ a law so irretrievably broken it had to be retroactively denied. Medicine is the Slightest Species of Magic, the true title of a treatise on the Napoleonic wars…tasting hidden chapter names behind the visible…(62-63)
Alix reflects on his life, possibly for the last time:
Picking up history like coloured flavors… railway furnaces, chestnut anciency, pistol cloaks, hooded horses in a dark tunnel, a symphony of something through long corridors of wide avenues… a seat by the shore… chairflap beaches of afternoons… children at a distance change, yellowing, momentariness (63-64).
He returns to the hotel, where he and Melody inject tears into their arms to experience hallucinogenic ecstasy. Blissful intimacy. When Melody is asleep, Alix prepares to enter the heart of God for the kill, aided by directions he pilfered from the girl in the cocoon back in the first chapter. But before he can take off, someone strikes him from behind, knocking him unconscious, and he is kidnapped by the Prevail.
He wakes up on a Prevail sub called the Bluetooth, confined in a sarcophagus-like box that blocks his power to flow through matter. The sub brings him back to England. I won’t recount his escape, but suffice it to say, he ends up back at the Internecine headquarters – the Keep. He finds Lockhart, his boss, who seems strangely uncomfortable. Alix talks about the irony that both factions, Prevail and Internecine, want to assassinate the same target, yet they continually delay one another. He has a theory as to why this stalemate exists. “(The Prevail) think we’re out to stage-manage the death of the universe,” he tells Lockhart, “whether it ensues naturally from God’s death or not” (77). He is correct about the Prevail’s concerns, but his theory hasn’t gone far enough. Apparently the Prevail have persuaded the Internecine to see it their way. Alix is shocked to see Casolaro, the Prevail leader, enter the room, soon followed by Quinas, and someone named Dreva, “a young Prevail techy and strongarm” (82). It seems that Lockhart, the Internecine leader, has joined forces with Casolaro and Quinas behind Alix’s back. Quinas no longer seems like a burnout, “looking smart and healthy in a white leather coat, his death-hair slicked back to the skull” (82, 83). Weakened from his recent exertion, Alix is unable to prevent them from fastening him to:
an upright aura-rack at the far end of the chamber. The motherhouse basement was an etheric runway. The old ascension containment cross had been dragged out of storage and stood on the cocoon platform between amplifier housings. The cross was an ancient but effective trip preventer which worked in part by keeping the subject spread and unable to focus inward – like trying to sing low with your head high. An electrostatic discharge closed the etheric airlocks and threw me back against the main spar. It was Saturday morning (82).
Obvious imagery of Jesus on the cross here. It’s possible that the mention of Saturday morning is, if not merely one of Aylett’s non sequiturs, a way of saying Alix was poised halfway between Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified, and Easter Sunday, when he was resurrected.
“You think it’s coincidental,” asks Quinas, “that at precisely the time that the greatest number of people feel indignant at God’s works, the fewest ever people believe in it?” (86)
Alix realizes that his captors aren’t so much worried about the world ending as they are simply “bone scared” (86) of making God angry.
“We’re reduced to stupid intrigues,” chides Alix, “hitting each other around the head in hotel rooms – the First Mystic Renegades would be ashamed” (87).
Melody enters the room, apparently part of the betrayal.
Casolaro approaches Alix with a hypodermic containing a fatal dose of poison.
Melody hands an old book to Quinas.
Quinas opens the book with casual curiosity.
Melody had put the mirror book into an old cover. A scream tore in half as Quinas was drawn eyes-first into the object, a cloud of blood sizzling across the floor and ceiling, drenching the onlookers. Casolaro looked back as Melody whacked down the generator switch, breaking the current to the rack (96).
It is interesting that the etheric containment device is referred to as both a rack and a cross. Ironic that Medieval church states employed the rack to compel heretics to confess.
With the containment device disengaged, Alix quickly launches his etheric essence free from his body and into higher dimensions, hurtling into God’s domain to carry out the hit.
Alix finally approaches the heart of God, within striking distance.
He is horrified:
But when the thing grew near, it precipitated from all directions in a vastness of intricate, nonrepeating evil. A slow spectacle of dark vanes and complex underside…(103)
Several interpretations went through my mind as this passage unfolded, much quicker than it will take to write about them.
The first interpretation is simply that Alix is looking at God, and if that is the case, then the Almighty is god-awful:
a titanic black insect floundered on its back at the center of an infinite nerve net, fiddling a millions legs amid the ferocious stench of vomit and scorching wires (103).
In 1976, psychologist Julian Jaynes proposed the theory of the bicameral mind. He believed that up until a few thousand years ago, when one side of our brain ‘spoke’ to the other side, early humans did not recognize the thoughts as coming from their own mind. After reading Jaynes’ book, Rabbi James Cohn wrote The Minds of the Bible, suggesting that Old Testament accounts of people “hearing the voice of God” are explained by the bicameral mind theory, and that is why we rarely hear of this phenomenon today (except in the case of schizophrenics). In this light, one could infer that the mirror imagery in Shamanspace is symbolic of Alix looking deep into his own monstrous psyche.
Its mouth rimmed with lashes like an eye, biting in space at an end, it was eternally frantic in its convulsions, evils tangling and stretching about its mindless ratcheting (103).
Or, maybe both things are true, that God is our mind but is also a god who exists separate from each individual, in a “wave or particle” construct. Carl Jung coined the term “collective unconscious” as a way of saying all people share universal symbols, or archetypes, in the DNA of our subconscious minds. But it goes further than that. Some researchers have applied Erwin Schrödinger’s unified field theory to the functions of the brain, based on the generally accepted fact that our thoughts generate from a physical process of chemical and electrical synapses. In this way, our minds are truly connected, not just by sharing the same unconscious archetypes, but joined in a quantum grid along with space, time, and mass. This may be what we call God, living inside and outside our brains at the same time.
Shackled by its own influence. Seeping cold corrosion in a night of oceanic tragedy. No cure ever, a constantly breaking heart. And before this thing I felt the blossoming of total exposure. All resolves atomized by horror. One particle of poison in a sea of poison. No guts in a zero. No hero. On the cross, my eyes turned to gold (103).
A mirror image of Christ, perhaps? Christians believe God came to Earth and allowed us to kill him. Alix went chasing God. Both ended on a cross. Both were still alive at the end of the book.
I emailed Steve Aylett, asking, “When Alix finally sees God, is he simply too appalled to kill it? Or too anguished or broken-hearted, with the brokenness feeding back into him?”
Steve’s reply was, “Yes, Alix is overwhelmed by the horror of that vision, and the fact that the god insect seems to be tangled and caught in its own horror. Alix experiences a universe-sized depressive breakdown” (RE: Questions):
And his eyes turned to gold, like the others.
Alix finishes his story in tears and Sig is awestruck, saying, “But you are sort of a hero. You found the heart despite everything, everyone.”
Alix tells Sig:
You don’t get it…the whole thing was stage-managed. The whole deal had been to send me off with passion. My friends. To save me from being a mere dry aeronaut, easily turned. Quinas knew he’d get it in the neck – but he welcomed it as a burnout. He had more mischief in him at the end than a lot of us start out with (107-108).
But Sig doesn’t quite believe it. He is a young gun with stars in his eyes, chomping at the bit for front-line action, to take on God and finish the job.
Melody stands in the doorway and Alix, now blind, senses her presence. He tells her, “I know it’s you brings the flowers” (109). This is a touching scene and makes me lean toward the theory that Shamanspace is a metaphor for a suicide attempt. Waking up in a hospital room.
But, no. I’m with Sig. I want to believe in super-powered edgemen flowing through matter and into other dimensions.
Peter Wild, in his review of Shamanspace on Bookmunch, compares the end of the book to “coming down from a trip” (Wild), and I agree. The book enthralled me, heightened my senses, and although nothing had changed, I felt different when it was over. I think of the old Zen axiom, “Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water. After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.”
Aylett told me, “It’s understandable that Shamanspace is hard to understand at times, Bill – it’s my most obscure and tortuous book, all meaning and no jokes. It’s sort of the opposite of The Inflatable Volunteer, which was all jokes and no meaning. It’s informed by total agony and despair” (RE: Questions).
“God is a concept by which we measure our pain.”
– John Lennon
Aylett, Steve. Shamanspace. UK: Codex Books, 2001.
Ecclesiastes, or, the Preacher. The Pocket Canon Series. New York: Grove Press/Atlantic, 1999. Print.
Lennon, John. “God.” John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Apple, 1970.Vinyl record.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None. Trans R. J. Hollingdale. UK: Penguin Classics, 1961. Print.
Nine Inch Nails. “Hurt.” The Downward Spiral. Nothing/Interscope Records, 1994. CD.
“RE: Questions about Shamanspace.” Message to Bill Ectric. 10 June 2015. Email.
Wild, Peter. “Books You Should’ve Read By Now.” Bookmunch. 19 June 2016. 20 June 2016.