Symbolion review
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My review of Symbolion (a great sci-fi novel)


The question I face repeatedly is, “What can I read?” Don’t laugh, this is a serious matter! ☺ After hundreds of sci-fi books and countless sci-fi movies, hardly anything surprises me. When in a bookstore, I sometimes only pick up a book, perhaps even featured in an ongoing advertising campaign, and after flipping through it, put it back on the shelf with a sigh. Space colonies – hmm. Superheroes – aha. Aliens – sure! All have already been here …

I confess I was beginning to despair. Especially lately, many new authors have surfaced, among which it is increasingly difficult to orient oneself, to decide to what to devote one’s time, what is worth reading. Why does nobody come up with something really original?

SymbolionAnd then Symbolion fell into my hands.

Well, this is truly something! Finally! Symbolion is a remarkable science-fiction novel written in a fresh way. This is why I would like to introduce the book on my blog today. In her debut work, Romana Kršňáková magnificently captures the atmosphere of the twilight of mankind. I actually read the book in one breath a year ago, so I am writing this enthusiastic review with enough distance to be able to compare …

Can you imagine total hopelessness? Real hell? The time when mankind has run out of time and nothing lies ahead, absolutely nothing? How would you live in the last city in the world, endangered from the outside by electromagnetic discharges that can eliminate you at any time? What would you do in that strange gray space where not even suicide brings relief? How would you manage the last human society with this awareness of the absolute end? Would you be able to prevent an outbreak of anarchy? And why should you?

I asked myself these and other questions while reading Symbolion (more at www.symbolion.com). And at the same time, I was finding the answers in the pages of the book: stars cannot be seen in the city, because it is completely hidden behind a protective hatch which shields it (at least partially) from the electromagnetic storms raging in the immediate vicinity of the dead planet Earth. The last remnants of mankind are controlled through the Secret Police by the mysterious Unifier, a man without a past. However, despite the repressive apparatus striving to maintain order, people still have freedom, they are not enslaved as, for example, in Orwell’s “1984”; their brains are not washed by propaganda. Regardless of the hopelessness of the situation, they want to live normally, have fun, love, celebrate Christmas. They still enjoy food, drink, and even smoke cigarettes.

And some, if they get hold of several illicitly transmitted game cards of the banned game of Symbolion, enter the virtual world and proceed through individual game levels where various surprises await them. Because this game is entirely different from what they had expected. And what they take away from it, can change everything. 

Nobody knows the origin of this game. Only one fact is certain: a person who enters the game, can gain unlimited access to the source of energy – or, on the contrary, completely exhaust his/her own energy. Players are also threatened by death if the Secret Police find a game card in their home. Journalist Brett would never have got involved in such a risky matter. Nevertheless, one day a game card is delivered to him in a mysterious way, and he faces a decision. He knows that his whole life could change, but that he could also lose it in a flash. Despite the danger he must undergo, he is committed to using the card.

There is hope even in the greatest despair – this ongoing thought has universal validity. Hopefully the Universum, as something higher than the Universe itself is called in the book, will have mercy on the fate of mankind …

The main protagonists gradually discover that the whole planet has been trapped inside a time loop caused by a devastating catastrophe. The loop can be broken, if energy is sufficiently increased. The lives of the unsuspecting residents revolve in a circle and they do not know that Symbolion actually represents the hope of rescue. Meanwhile, a group of rebels fighting the system is seeking in underground tunnels beneath the city to find a way back in time, to a time before the catastrophe, in order to reverse the course of history.

Disconcerted, I ask myself: How many times have these brave heroes attempted to save mankind? How many lifetimes have they unwittingly spent in the devastated city? How many times have they suffered the agony, time and time again, with immense effort uncovered all the secrets, only to be thrown by the time loop back to the beginning, with memory erased? A hundred times? A thousand times? A million times? A fascinating – and at the same time utterly horrific idea …

When reading, I could not resist reflecting on where this story of the future is actually taking place. We find ourselves in an unknown world, which is however somehow familiar to us. Is it a reflection of the life we have already once lived, or which we experience in other realities? The unnamed city seemed intimately familiar to me, and yet completely strange. The surviving traditions obviously stem from European culture, but the spectrum of human names suggests racial diversity. Could it be London, Berlin or Amsterdam? High-rise buildings confirm a once advanced and prospering economy, perhaps Singapore or Perth then? On the other hand, here we find jugglers, fortune-tellers, craftsmen and cozy taverns like anywhere in Prague or Dublin. However, I’d rather expect the wide avenues, vast tangle of underground tunnels and housing estates falling apart at the periphery perhaps to be in Moscow or Paris. So where on earth can this city be? Only in my second reading did I notice a tiny, inconspicuous detail which identifies the location unambiguously. I was thrilled! All the facts fitted precisely!

I won’t tell. ☺ In any case, the specific GPS coordinates where the story takes place, are unimportant. The physical environment of all this, hidden behind the hatch and shaking fearfully against the horrors proceeding behind its protective shield, is secondary. What is important, are the relationships between people, love, mutual competition for the scarce personal energy (but also its selfless sharing), the willingness to elevate the benefit of the whole above self-interest and the strength to fight fate despite the minimal chance of success. We witness many moving examples of solidarity and self-sacrifice for others. These themes are also burningly topical in our own times.

Symbolion takes the reader on an adventurous road full of discoveries. The novel, bearing the name of the illegal virtual game, also represents a kind of game for readers. Together with the main characters, the reader sets out on an adventure during which secrets hidden in parables are gradually disclosed. At times, the reader may think he knows where the story is leading, but sooner or later Symbolion forces these expectations to be revised. It is necessary to proceed carefully because things might not be what they appear to be. The pages contain passages that reward the attentive reader with frequent “aha!” moments. Unfortunately, I cannot disclose in advance these clues, ingeniously encoded in the text, in order not to provide spoilers for new readers, thus preventing the pleasure of the independent gradual revelation of the history, geography, intentions, relations and characteristics of Symbolion.

With regard to mind-games for readers, now I recall for example, Robert A. Heinlein (in the case of a classic, over 60-year-old literary work, I can perhaps afford a spoiler, everybody surely knows this anyway), who in
“Friday” revealed only on the last pages that the hero is in fact black (while readers undoubtedly imagined the action scenes throughout to involve a young, light-skinned fighter). With this slight joke, Heinlein fought against contemporary racial prejudices. ☺ He used the same trick at the end of “Starship Troopers” (by the way, the book is quite philosophical, contrary to its warlike film interpretation), when he mentioned that the mother tongue of the brave American soldier, Rico, narrator of the story, is Philippine Tagalog. Why not? In addition, Heinlein shocked for the third time. In “Stranger in a Strange Land” people enjoy communal bathing in a swimming pool. Only one subsidiary sentence, actually just a few words somewhere in the middle of the book, subsequently in the minds of readers clarifies this image of self-confident people, happily having fun in the water, making it clear that they definitely are not wearing swimsuits while swimming together. So what, you ask? But at the time of the publication of this novel (1961), such an idea was immensely scandalous – the era of the “flower children” and free love only began several years later.

Similarly, in her work Romana Kršňáková gradually introduces revelations (sometimes between the lines), thanks to which the reader retrospectively understands and appreciates the previous event, thus entertaining and maintaining curiosity. The authoress has a gift of mediating the view of individual characters, of disclosing the ulterior motives of their behavior, without wasting words. She goes under the surface, whereby the reader is able to easily identify with the main characters, to fear for them, dream about them – and again relive their story in dreams.

Actually, not only in dreams: whenever I am walking in a gray, misty street, I recall the city without stars. When I am sitting with friends in a cozy pub, I recall a similar enterprise where Kala, Zachary, Tobias and the other likeable “conspirators” liked to meet. As I put on a VR helmet, which seemingly transfers my mind into a computer-generated artificial environment (nothing beats striking virtual dwarfs jumping out of virtual holes all around with a virtual big hammer ☺ ), I wonder, how incomparably more advanced the game of Symbolion would be. Plum cake with almonds and streusels, which Brett enjoys in his aunt’s home  as he drinks his coffee, has had an unrivaled charm for me ever since. And as soon as I think of a certain pulsating metropolis, so diverse and noisy today – I recall the ruins into which it will change. So well is it written.

The technological basis, societal functioning, political and economic systems are rather merely touched on. However, given the dreamy nature of the novel, it is probably not even desirable to discuss specific physical conditions. Symbolion is simply a world which is known and unknown at the same time – like the substance from which our dreams are woven.

By the way, on her personal website www.romisy.com Romana Kršňáková also presents her paintings. Her artistic orientation can be seen in the book, as she paints her dreamy images from Symbolion right into the souls of readers. A lively story unfolds before the very eyes – they clearly see the ice floes as well as blazing flames, they hear the sounds of the marketplace, their mouths water for various delicacies, they feel the musty underground tunnels, their flesh creeps when looking into the universe’s infinity, and they fear for the destinies of the heroic “conspirators”, whose efforts can be thwarted by the Secret Police, or by a strong electromagnetic discharge which penetrates through the protective shield of the dome.

This ability to activate such inner visions in readers is rare. More than one year has passed since I read Symbolion (twice), and even after such a lapse of time I still have to ruminate on the fates of the individual characters. Their human, sometimes even humorous, actions illuminate a world which would otherwise remain dark and perhaps even unworthy of salvation. What happened to them next? I would like to visit the cozy “At the Prince” bar again, sip Black Corsair (amber rum with the aroma of smoke and vanilla) and scratch the shaggy dog Toby’s ears under the table … I long to return to Symbolion. Much still waits to be explained. The basic plot stands, therefore I eagerly await the sequel which the authoress is currently thinking through.

I am perplexed how Romana Kršňáková “learned” all this, from which spheres the riveting story of people out of the future came to her, that she so perfectly captures the depressing mood in the City crouching behind a gigantic cupola. I only hope that the inspiration she had, and so beautifully embodied in her art, is not a prophecy of something really about to happen one day, but rather a breathtaking literary memento, or perhaps a warning.

The novel provides a convincing story which must be read. Thanks to the spellbinding style of Symbolion, the reader becomes so immersed in the events, that the adventure, experienced together with the characters, leaves certain indelible traces, and to some extent also influences  his/her own worldview.

In contrast to the masterfully described image of a dismal future, I newly appreciate – that we are not living in it. Because the horrible catastrophe hinted at in Symbolion, has not yet taken place. In our timeline, the planet Earth is spectacular and abounding with life. We can watch the stars at night (and rejoice in the warmth of sun in the daytime). The world is all right so far. And every new morning is a miracle, for which we should continually thank the Universum and do all we can to make the world even more beautiful.

Czech version of this review is available here.

Written on: 21st March 2019


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