Reading Room Review: Captive Universe by Harry Harrison

However great an invention the Kindle has proven to be, not all books seem quite at home on it. Reading Captive Universe, a 1969 science fiction novel by the prolific American author Harry Harrison, I could never quite escape the feeling that the proper format to encounter it in would be a dog-eared paper volume with an orange cover. It feels very much a product of its era; a time in the genre before  cyberpunk and young adult dystopias.

The story concerns Chimal,  a young member of an Aztec community that inhabites a valley cut off from the world. His tribe is bound by strict laws . Human sacrifices are made to ensure the sun returns to the sky while, by night, the valley is haunted by the serpent-headed god Coatlicue. As Chimal enters adulthood, he begins to discover that all is not as it appears to be. Penetrating the valley walls, he discovers a  technically advanced race of Observers who have overseen the Aztec people through several centuries. Learning his own special place in the plans of the Observers and the mysterious Great Designer, he finds himself  in a unique position of power.

Harrison has some fun with this world, especially during the sequences when Chimal is exploring the valley’s twisted geography. Unfortunately, for the most part Captive Universe is a rather dry and joyless read.  The main protagonist is supposedly a messiah of sorts but one I found it impossible to  care about. Chimal barely seems to respond to what is a radical change in his  knowledge and perception. His sudden ability to understand every technical detail of the Observers’ systems  stretches credulity to breaking point. He is driven by the desire to know but his reaction to the knowledge he gains is little more than a sketch. Even after a bereavement, he’s  a character without characteristics.

The protagonists  around Chimal are equally underdeveloped, leaving both cultures colourless, even though Harrison has clearly done some research into Aztec culture. Matters aren’t helped by the lack of any proper encounter or conflict between the two groups. This is a real shame because there is the potential for a more full-bloodied tale of different peoples  devoted to the notion of  sacrifice to supposedly greater powers.

If Captive Universe fails in terms of narrative or character, it works much  better as a book of ideas. The notion of a self-contained world that proves to be illusionary is now familiar from the likes of The Truman Show . In 1969, when terms like post-modernism weren’t so freely banded about, it must have seemed much fresher. Harrison uses the Aztecs and Observers  to demonstrate how both primitive and advanced  peoples have limits to their knowledge. That vanity is shown to have played a role in the creation of the captive universe introduces a welcome edge of satire.

Harrison had a reputation as  playful, humorous writer. Unfortunately, Captive Universe, despite showing that there can be more to the world than meets the eye, fell flat for me.


My next read: Saga – Volume One by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

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