Matthew Cavanagh reviews a novella which asks what it is that makes a person.
The Warren • Publisher: Tor • RRP: £8.20 • Author: Brian Evenson • Published: 2016-08-16
X doesn’t have a name. He thought he had one – or many – but that might be the result of the failing memories of the personalities imprinted within him. Or may be he is really called X.
He’s also not as human as he believes himself to be
But when he discovers the existence of another – above ground, outside the protection of the Warren – X must learn what it means to be human, or face the destruction of their two species.
When you wake up, what exactly makes you you? How do you know who you are and who you were yesterday? Are you the same person? How would you know? In this unsettling novella Evenson takes you on a short journey into the question of identity and humanity. While not giving you clear answers, will make you think.
The beginning of the story reminds me a little of text adventure games where you find yourself waking up in a room with no details. X is initially a blank slate, unable to even understand moving, but quickly we realise that when X also carries the personalities of his predecessors. But things are incomplete – entropy is a key theme. The warren that X finds himself in is a decaying refuge from the world outside running out of essential materials, the outer world (when finally revealed) is...not at its best. This tale is set after the apocalypse.
X is largely alone in the story, apart the personalities stored within him. These personalities provide him with knowledge (what are things called, how to use doors), but he can also access memories of previous events (or at least the personalities' initial understanding of them). Each new memory can destroy previous ones, so are his memories complete? Can X trust himself? Are the additional personalities entirely passive? Plus, when he does eventually meet someone their reactions to him are questionable at best. X was not born like us, but based on his responses, is he human? These questions are, unsettlingly, not explicitly answered but you’ll be thinking about it a while.
This short tale may not take you long to read, but is one that asks the reader to work hard to quickly work out what is happening and decide for themself who or what X is. This is a quality piece of science fiction doing an awful lot in a short space of time.