Wonderfully quirky, nerdy, and compelling.
The narrator is reflective, curious, self-conscious and insecure. He is also a washed-up former star of a fading industry, suffering a mid-life crisis and looking back on how he has gotten to where he is. It almost reads like an alternate reality autobiography, feeling confessional, personal, and true. And it features ruminations on math, science, death, ritual sacrifice, mysticism, and repeated use of the word "chthonic."
I have to admit, though, I was hooked from the moment I read the author bio on the back jacket flap.
James Kennedy is the author of The Order of Odd-Fish. Before becoming a writer, he was a computer programmer with a degree in physics and philosophy. Dare to Know is his first adult novel.
For one, I'm in the fairly small group of people who read and enjoyed The Order of Odd-Fish when it came out some 14 odd years ago and have been waiting for his sophomore effort since. Even more, I was thrilled by someone into writing, computer programming, physics, and philosophy. This, to me, is someone who wants to understand how things work--and why. And I wasn't disappointed, because this book's narrator is all of those things.
This reads a little bit like The Matrix. Well, it lives in The Matrix's neighborhood. The part without any action sequences or coolness, in the library, museum, and university district. Still, our character dwells on the edges of the code that determines reality. He has a special awareness that most people lack, a special talent to almost manipulate reality. And he is a struggling, lonely, bitter salesman in crisis. He's Neo crossed with Willy Loman.
What he sells is math. The math related to a recently-discovered particle called the thanaton, which determine the whens and hows of death. He calculates and sells people their death dates.
Everyone was shocked that thanatons behaved according to mathematics that were, for lack of a better term, subjective. Stettinger's breakthrough: to acknowledge that the solver was part of the problem. That is, when solving for the thanaton, both the problem and its solver changed--they changed each other, step by step, during the solving process. Even more unexpected: that you could only do subjective math by inventing your own subjective way. You had to construct your own version of the math, your own version of the algorithms, your own heuristics, even your own notation. That's why computers can't do subjective mathematics. It's why thanatons were resisted for so long by traditional mathematicians.
He spends some of the book explaining thanatons, their discovery, his interest, the growth and decline of his industry, the path of his career. He spends some of it remembering old friendships that were pivotal to his identity, and more on his misadventures in love and family. All the things that have brought him to his current moment.
Woven into those confessions are hints of terror, things that don't make sense, cracks in the system. He slowly parcels them out with marvelous plotting, building tension and momentum and vague, creeping dread until readers join him in feeling that there's something else, something more to thanatons than anyone knows. And that we're bound to find out.
I'm sure this book won't be for every reader. For me, with similar interests and manner of thinking, of a contemporary age to resonate with all the life-experience and pop-culture references, it was a perfect fit.
To my surprise, Renard felt the same way. He said that music on the radio sometimes freaked him out, too, but for him it was the sleek, artificial eighties anthems that were haunted; to Renard those songs sounded reptilian, sinister, metallic; he remembered one time, late at night in bed listening to the radio, when Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer" came on, he had felt a chill at the lyric about seeing a deadhead sticker on a Cadillac. Renard had no idea what a "deadhead sticker" was but it had sounded to him like a satanic emblem--and since the sticker was displayed on a Cadillac, that implied that even the wealthy were in on the satanism, that society's spiritual corruption went all the way to the top. Renard had also imagined the "little voice inside my head" referred to an actual voice that broke into the singer's consciousness, hissing behind his ear, Don't look back, you can never look back. So the question is, should you obey this demon voice or defy it? Should you actually look back? But wait, what if it's a deliberate taunt, what if the voice's intention is to goad you into looking back? In that case, you really mustn't look back, right? Like how Indiana Jones tells Marion not to look when they open the lost ark? Because maybe the deadhead sticker wants to do something worse than melt your face off, it wants to infect the world with its evil, and if you did turn around to look at the deadhead sticker on the Cadillac it would find its way into you, it would place its evil in you.
So don't look back.
Renard and I understood each other.