Portals in a Northern Sky
by Charles Douglas Hayes
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 24, 2003
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This is Charles Douglas Hayes' first novel, his other books being non-fiction explorations of the process of self-education. He is a long-time resident of Alaska, which is the setting for much of the action in this novel. An ex-Marine and former police officer, he has worked more than twenty years in the oil industry as well. In 1987 Hayes founded Autodidactic Press, the publisher of Portals in a Northern Sky and most if not all of his other books. His stated goal is to promote education "not as something you get but as something you take." If his non-fiction is as profound and readable as this fiction, then I would have to say they would be well worth pursuing.
Even though there is an SF element to the plot it is on the periphery, and as in many other genre works is used mainly to set the stage for the story the author wishes to tell. In this case the main thrust of the story has to do with Hayes' passions of self-education and self-reliance, along with some profound thoughts on the possibilities - or lack thereof - of fate and destiny. He has skillfully interwoven the tales of several generations of related persons with those of their descendants in our near future. From an unnamed Russian trapper mauled by a bear in the Alaskan frontier to an ex-Civil War officer hired as a wagon-train scout, from a young Ohio-born woman on that wagon-train trek to her great-great grandson, a Dallas police officer, from a young Wall Street whiz-kid who quits his job and hitchhikes to Alaska to the philosophical bookstore owner who gives him a ride, the fortunes and misfortunes of these remarkable characters intertwine with each other and build to a memorable climax.
That bookstore owner, Ruben Sanchez, is my favorite character, and I would be willing to bet that he is the most likely candidate to be Hayes' alter-ego in this story. He reminded me a lot of the philosophizing deejay, Chris Stevens (John Corbett), on the early '90s television drama Northern Exposure, which was also set in Alaska. It is in Sanchez' conversations with Robert "T&T" Thornton, the Wall Street refugee, that we read of what must be some of Hayes' own favorite books and authors, from Herman Melville's Moby Dick and Jack London's The Call of the Wild, to contemporary works such as John F. Schumaker's The Age of Insanity and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's The Evolving Self. Several SF authors are also mentioned along the way, among them Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Connie Willis.
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The "portals" in the title is where the SF element comes in. Adam Whitehead is a physicist who earlier in his career had proposed a process using the principles of interferometry. Utilizing banks of widely-spaced infared telescopes and satellites set up in a complicated pattern of triangulations, and by looping signals and bouncing them to and from near-earth objects, he felt it was possible to look back in time and view any period of the planet's past. His ideas initially sparked some interest but the criticisms against it were also strong and unrelenting, and he ended his career feeling his reputation was tarnished and unrespected. One of his students, native-American James Washington Tall Tree, felt differently however, and eventually came to a position which afforded him the opportunity to test Whitehead's theories. As national science advisor to the president his office's budget had been increased greatly from any of his predecessors (secretly funded by the CIA), his major accomplishment being the establishment of a complex of radio telescope installations in the wilds of Alaska, electronically tied to a series of orbiting satellites.
At the beginning of the novel the president is on the verge of announcing this revolutionary new technology, but Tall Tree insists on waiting until Whitehead can be contacted and afforded the honor he deserves as the proponent of the Portals system, thereafter to be known as Adam21. But Whitehead, now in retirement and fearful of succumbing to Alzheimers as several of his ancestors, has retreated to his remote cabin near Mount McKinley, determined to end his days (even if it is by his own hand) amongst the majesty of the land he has loved for so long. The destinies of all the other characters are also tied to this area of land on Caribou Creek, and Hayes jumps back and forth to their stories until they all converge one fateful, foggy night.
As mentioned previously, the novel Moby Dick is referenced several times during the course of the book, and not only by Ruben Sanchez. It is also one of the books read by Sara Spencer Peek on the long wagon-train trip from Ohio to California, as well as by her descendant Vincent Terrell as he, his girlfriend, and his niece drive from Texas to Alaska. They are inspired to do so after reading about Sara's feelings about the book in her journal they discover in Vince's sisters' safe deposit box following her untimely death in a fire. I tried reading it once myself but never finished it; it struck me as unecessarily complicated and obscurely allegorical, and more famous simply because English teachers said it was great rather than for its actual merits. After reading what Hayes has to say about it though, I will probably give it another chance one of these days.
One of the major elements stressed by Hayes is that of fate, even though the character of Sanchez scoffs at the notion. Personally, my opinion of the matter would coincide more with that skepticism rather than with the conclusion that our destinies are somehow fore-ordained, no matter how the situation may look on the surface. Whenever I read of such a notion I am reminded of a lyric by my favorite song-writer, Phil Ochs, from his "Talking Vietnam Blues" - "Thank God for coincidence!"
This being a work of fiction, Hayes is able to make it appear that his character's lives were destined to be interlinked, even those that at first glance would seem to be extremely unrelated, such as that of Thornton and a woman he meets on a bus early in the book. The Adam21 system is even able to track the interconnected lives of Tall Tree's ancestors with those of Sara Peek and Vince Terrell. Regardless of whether such incidents relate to things that happen in real life is inconsequential. In the context of Hayes' story they point out the importance of history and our place in it. The fact that many people today are unaware of, and unfortunately unconcerned about the history of their own families (much less that of our nation and the world as a whole) has resulted in generations of individuals who feel no connection with their society and their peers.
This being from a small press it is not likely to get a lot of exposure in the usual SF circles, and while it is a bit different than the other books I have been reading lately I am pleased to say it is one I would recommend to anyone wishing for a thought provoking and challenging read. I made notes of several quotes, most from Sanchez, which I had intended to provide here, but as the list grew longer and longer I was faced with the dilemma of choosing which ones to include. As it turns out I went back through the book, reviewing his conversations, and decided to use one I had not initially written down. It focuses on what I feel is a very important aspect of anyone's education, reading itself, and while Sanchez is talking about what it means to one who wishes to be a writer, I think it is also appropriate for all of us in general.
"A writer who doesn't read is like a gunslinger without bullets. Reading seeds your imagination. It enlarges awareness and enables you to see through the potential bullshit. To be an effective writer you have to be taller in spirit than your culture is wide, or you will be overwritten by popular sentiment. Reading is the way you grow a third eye."
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