The Pillars of Eternity
Reviewed date: 2018 May 18
A novel about:
How clones made murder a new sexual experience...
How rebuilding one man's skeleton made him the most sensitive and powerful man in the galaxy...
How a deck of cards was devised that was really programmed to reveal the future...
How a lost planet became the mecca of every treasure-hunter in space...
How Joachim Boaz plotted to derail the entire universe!
Joachim Boaz is a boneman, a colonnader, and a shipkeeper. And he wants to die.
He is a boneman because his skeleton has been replaced with silicon bones filled with adp. ADP is automatic data processing, and most people have a small adplant in their head to help them remember, to communicate, and to calculate. Boaz has so much adp that it changes what he can be. The bone functions can increase his sensitivity to pleasure and pain, can speed up his calculating so much that time seems to stop. The bones can heal his body; he is effectively immortal.
He is a colonnader, a follower of a philosophy whose adherents strive to achieve ataraxy, a state of complete mental calmness. Ataraxy is the only way to harness the power of silicon bones without being overwhelmed by their sensory input. Colonnaders also believe in a cosmology that presumes a cyclical and deterministic universe. Each iteration of the universe is identical. Thus the past is the future is the past. Colonnaders also believe in mindfire. Mindfire is the universal substance of which everything is made of--all matter, all energy, all consciousness, the soul--these are accumulations and concentrations of mindfire.
He is a shipkeeper. Joachim Boaz prefers the antiquated title Captain to the term shipkeeper, because in his case, the ship is more his keeper than the reverse. Shortly after Boaz received the operation that made him a boneman, he was caught in a volcanic eruption. His silicon bones prevented him from dying, but he experienced the event in excruciating intensity, his bone functions dialed up to high sensitivity. A seeming eternity in a very literal hell. The experience shattered his psyche and his body, and when the bonemakers put him back together, the adp needed to keep him functional couldn't fit in his silicon bones. They built the adp into a spaceship. Boaz is functional so long as he never goes farther than a few miles from his ship.
Joachim Boaz makes a living hauling cargo in his spaceship, but what he really wants to do is die. Not just an ordinary death, but cease to exist in a way that he can escape the living hell he went through. Because the universe is cyclical and deterministic, merely dying will mean everything will happen again in the next iteration of the universe. Boaz wants to find a way to cheat the universe, to alter time such that the next time around, he will not go through hell again.
Unfortunately for Boaz, the Econosphere rulers have outlawed research into time travel. Publicly they believe in determinism, but privately they're afraid that somebody mucking about with time travel may change things, and the rulers of the Econosphere like things the way they are, thank you very much.
The galaxy is vast and the Econosphere's power is limited, so when the wandering planet Meirjain appears in the Brilliancy Cluster, everybody--Joachim Boaz included--rushes to be the first to land. Meirjain is the galaxy's only source of time-gems, those multi-faceted crystalline gems that bend light such that--if you look through them just right--you can see events that haven't happened yet. The last time Meirjain the Wanderer appeared, the Econosphere government confiscated all the time-gems discovered, but this time the Econosphere cruiser is unable to prevent Boaz and others from landing on the planet's surface.
On Meirjain, Boaz discovers time-gems. He also meets ibis-headed aliens who can slide backward and forward in the time dimension, but only along their own lifespans. Boaz takes the time-gems to Aban Ebarak, a scientist who is clandestinely studying time travel. Cere Chai Hebron, the Econosphere Director of Scientific Affairs, also gets involved. Hebron is a member of Thelema, a sexist secret society (women need not apply!) that rejects determinism and seeks to use time travel to evolve the universe itself into a consciousness, a volitional creature. Boaz's goal is only slightly more modest: to break the determinism of the universe by sliding backward in time and re-experiencing his trauma while retaining his subsequent memories, thus altering the experience. As Hebron puts it, "If you can descend into hell, and emerge unbroken, you will become a god."
At this point I really thought Joachim Boaz was going to slide back in time, go through hell, and emerge victorious as a god: Jesus. But no, Bayley doesn't play it that way. At least I don't think he does. The book gets rather confusing toward the end.
Eystrach Orm closes in on Boaz. Orm is an Econosphere law enforcer from the Rectification Branch, whose job is to stop time crimes. Boaz makes a breakthrough: he was broken by pain, so he turns his bone functions up to eight (sorry, these don't go to eleven) and heals himself through pleasure. Indescribable pleasure counterbalancing unimaginable pain. Then Orm destroys Boaz's spaceship, killing him. Boaz slides backward in time to his experience in hell, re-experiencing it, but retaining his future memories. He remembers. He wins. He changes the universe.
Colonnaders are so named as a reference to their favorite symbol: the two pillars from the temple of Solomon, named Joachim and Boaz. When his skeleton was replaced with silicon bones, Joachim Boaz renamed himself after these pillars.
Also, in this society there are nymphgirls who love to engage in sex murder. That is, being killed during sex. Clone replacement bodies and continuous brain backups to the cloud make sex murder something that can be experienced over and over, and apparently it's real popular. I'm trying to imagine the sort of twisted culture that produces such a practice. Fortunately it's a throwaway idea that plays no real part in the plot or the storytelling.
Barrington J. Bayley is a clever writer and he makes sure you know that he's a clever writer. That's why he inserts little authorial asides whenever he turns a clever phrase. For example, when Ebarak says "You are skimming very close to the event horizon," Bayley makes sure to tell us that this is a future version of the phrase "skating on thin ice," in case you didn't understand. And when somebody uses the word "squirreling" Bayley makes sure to stop everything and tell us that this evolved from the phrase "going nuts." Oh Mr. Bayley, you're so clever!
Speaking of clever, Bayley has a clever way to avoid the paradoxes inherent in time travel. It's quite simple. Aban Ebarak explains it thusly: "Oh, I don't think so. Paradoxes don't exist in the real world." There you have it. Paradoxes don't exist in the real world. Of course! That settles it then.
The Pillars of Eternity isn't a terrible book. It's actually quite engaging in parts. But overall the story didn't quite hang together. I didn't believe the resolution, and frankly I didn't buy into the motivations of the characters. Their actions felt contrived. And it's a story with time travel, which I've just never been a fan of, because most writers can't convincingly handle the paradoxes involved with time travel. It's a memorable book, but not one I would recommend.