Urgent and practical prose bolstered with dialog, that at times, feels weighted with jargon while fully acknowledging the supremacy of story, and at other times—stabs right into the heart of humanity.
The story is driven by mankind’s mad, singular, all-encompassing quest to break through the illusory perceptions of reality and discover what’s behind existence. We follow the main character (Eddie) who serves as both protagonist and antagonist over the years as he explores the boundaries of science. The plot centers around the main character ingesting hallucinogens and seeking the solace of an isolation tank almost as if he is attempting to time travel. He’s actually trying to go back into a sort of collective unconsciousness to search out early man–the archetype of the noble savage. Eddie’s looking not only to go on a “trip” of his mind, but to break through the boundaries and perceptions of reality to the heights of spirituality and the depths of physics. He wants to breach past notions of time and space in a cosmic way. Yet, it is a personal quest.
In many ways the prose reads as a sort of modern Jules Verne type tale with the author shoving layers of scientific theory and research into the story to explain what’s going on. The overall read is smoother than older literature and the occasional dumps of jargon and theory are always countered with genuine passages of character emotion and grounded action. I found myself skipping over a lot of the technical talk (as I have in other such books), but the terminology is appropriate to the subject and may be more appealing to others looking for hard science in their fiction. The point is that the author is a highly skilled storyteller and hits all the right beats he should even with the heavy tech references.
There were definitely science fiction elements and even some horror present in this tale. What I enjoyed most was that everything felt realistic and tension was maintained without going overboard on the action. This reads primarily like a thriller, moving fast and light. It was very visual and the author’s steeped and much lauded background in television and film sort of came through almost as if I was reading a three-act structure screenplay (which he eventually did too—when this was adapted to film).
What the author is known for is his dialog in screen plays. This is present in the novel. There are masterful monologues where the characters give grand, yet grounded speeches professing their innermost hopes, fears, and desires. These give real gravity to the material and bolster the more fantastical elements—not that those were flimsy. The crescendo of this novel is as fitting as any such solid movie of its caliber. My only complaint, and perhaps I went into reading this with some bias having researched the author a bit beforehand, was that sometimes the shorter bits of dialog felt a little stilted and redundant (the quick back and forth). Also, the other characters who also tell the story (the wife and colleagues of Eddie), felt a bit two-dimensional at times. Though this was not always the case, and when the author allowed them to fall into monologues of their own, they did come alive.
Another interesting aspect of this book was the way the author made the main character compelling despite his unlikable personality. He’s driven to the point of neglecting those around him. Yet, he’s aware of his faults. Not that his awareness will stop him. He’s simply not a monster (ironically). In many ways the main character is searching for himself in his scientific quest to alter his own consciousness. It’s like he knows there is something wrong with himself and that things might be better if only he could get outside of his own head. He is in continual quest for a primal consciousness. A more primitive self. A simpler more animalistic time. Which is a counterpoint to his own personality that comes across almost robotic.
On the book’s jacket the author noted that he was thinking about the intersection of science, philosophy, and spirituality. This book very much explores that idea. The characters are all scientifically driven, however they get into such heady and technical science that the clear answers drift away and everything becomes just as fuzzy as spirituality might be considered.
In the end, it seems that the author is saying all these elements in life which appear to be in conflict with one another (i.e. spirituality and science), are actually in conversation with one another. That they come together in the final equation.
I don’t necessarily recommend this book for everyone, but it is a curiosity for those looking to explore another aspect of this famous script writer’s body of work or as a further exploration of the film—and, perhaps those looking for lots of science theory in their science fiction.
Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes, Tune-In Radio, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).
Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2019/01/15/review-altered-s…-paddy-chayefsky/