By Matthew Hughes
The Commons is introduced by editor Robert J. Sawyer as a “fixup”: a novel knitted together out of a series of previous published short stories which in this case follow the adventures of Guth Bandar in the “noösphere.”
The noösphere (colloquially called the “Commons”) is a place that contains “the distillation of all human experience . . . the composite memory of the species.” It is the collective unconscious imagined as a rather literary sort of virtual reality, one inhabited by archetypes (or “idiomats”) acting out the basic building blocks of our shared human psychodrama. The noösphere is entered by highly-trained noönauts like Bandar through a process of meditation, with special chants protecting them from being absorbed into its mental fabric. Much like the Matrix, the noösphere is a dangerous place where virtual injury can lead to physical consequences, even death, in the real world.
That’s the basic premise, and it’s a good one. The novel moves quickly, with Bandar channel surfing in and out of various mythic events and situations via musically-activated doorways or “nodes.” Depending on his location within the well-mapped geography of the noösphere the genre slips from bawdy comedy to historical costume drama, SF, fantasy, Western, and mash-ups of everything in-between. But then the noösphere starts becoming unstable, and the collective unconscious shows signs of developing consciousness in the face of a dire threat from the great Beyond.
The frantic pace and episodic structure, combined with the virtual reality noösphere interface, make reading The Commons feel a bit like watching someone play a videogame, with Bandar having to complete increasingly difficult levels as he gains experience points on his way to the final showdown. But it all makes for a rollicking fun ride.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, November 2007.