If you haven’t read Hughes’ earlier novel Black Brillion, I suggest reading it before reading The Commons, as this novel’s second half replays the events of the earlier novel, but from the point of view of Guth Bandar, a supporting character in Brillion, but the protagonist here. The Commons is a “fix-up” novel, reworked from a series of short stories featuring Bandar, plus the Brillion material. So it doesn’t entirely hang together as a novel, but it’s pretty entertaining anyway. (For what it’s worth, I read The Commons first, not realizing the connection between the two.)
Guth Bandar is a “noönaut”, a man who can enter into humanity’s collective unconscious and explore representations of our racial memories. This domain is known as The Commons, and while it’s a rich source of information, it’s also a dangerous place, as explorers can get trapped in a story or legend, or get wrapped up in the doings of archetypal figures which represent undiluted facets of human experience. The book opens with Bandar as a student at the Institute for Historical Inquiry, and its first half consists of short stories in which he attempts to become a full scholar, encountering repeated setbacks in his competition with another student, Didrick Gabbris, for favor with the capricious and insular faculty. These stories show how the Commons works, and the exotic techniques the educated traveler uses to try to insulate himself from the influences of the scenes he visits. Bandar’s adventures include:
- A visit to a planet where the native life forms are exploited into adopting human archetypes to perform in plays for the human colonists.
- Being waylaid in a contest with Gabbris and having to take the long way around to reach the finish line. (This is the most absurd story, as Bandar alters parts of his body in comical fashion in each episode, but has the best payoff when he gets stuck in a representation of the eternal war between Heaven and Hell.) You can read this story on Hughes’ web site.
- Getting caught up in the collapse of an Event in the Commons – which he inadvertently causes himself – and which reveals something hitherto unknown about the Commons.
- Getting stranded – for reasons I won’t reveal here – as the Helper to a Hero in an ancient scenario of a slaves’ revolt, which leads to a pivotal development in Bandar’s life.
As I said, the second half of the book revisits the events from Black Brillion, in which Bandar meets the policemen Baro Harkless and Luff Imbry, and learns that Harkless has an unusual and disturbing talent for entering the Commons himself. Bandar helps tutor Harkless for a while, and then gets caught up in the case the pair are investigating on the wasteland on Old Earth known as the Swept. Here he becomes the Helper to Baro Harkless’ Hero, a key component but ultimately largely a watcher in the younger man’s story.
Taken as a whole, some key elements of the novel are not very satisfying: Bandar’s life is disrupted by powers beyond his ken in order to accomplish a goal of great importance to all of humanity, but I don’t think Hughes really sells the manipulation of Bandar very well, and the ultimate goal that he and Baro Harkless manage to achieve just doesn’t feel like the sort of thing that the powers that be would have known about years ahead of time, much less manipulated Bandar to be the right man in the right place at the right time. And as a character arc the payoff for his troubles hardly seems adequate: While he finally achieves something like his life’s goals, he’s lost a big chunk of his lifetime because of his career getting derailed, and he ended up being a supporting character in someone else’s story. I really just felt sorry for the guy. Also, it felt like most of Bandar’s maturation occurs off-stage between the first and second halves, when he’s growing from a young man to an experienced one through the natural day-to-day progression of life; he definitely feels more mature in the second half, but we don’t see it happen, which makes it feel like a big part of his character arc is missing.
I think Hughes’ sense of whimsy – particularly the ludicrousness of the situations Bandar ends up in – isn’t as effective here as in other books. Indeed, a problem with both Bandar and Harkless in their respective novels is that they’re both too serious, too humorless, to feel like characters that fit into these situations. While Henghis Hapthorn is himself a pretty serious character, he has both the style and the verbal wit to be an effective actor in ridiculous or belittling situations, in ways that Bandar isn’t.
The book is at its best in portraying the narrative potential of the Commons, especially in the first half, which runs through a number of inventive situations, with clever puzzles for Bandar to figure out within the confines of this strange environment. The story involving the war between heaven and hell is my favorite precisely because Bandar takes advantage of the peculiar nature of a scenario within the Commons, and the fact that it’s not a real event, to be able to get out of his predicament.
So overall I was disappointed with The Commons; I don’t think it measures up to Hughes’ other novels. I hope he revisits the environment again sometime, but with a story that holds together better.