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The Traveler, by John Twelve Hawks

I'll confess to being quite confused by this book. After reading Wally Conger's review of The Traveler, I decided to give it a look, whenever I could wrap my coils around it. Upon returning from a conference, lo! -- there it was on my desk, courtesy of a friend who'd bought it, and who deemed it "pretty good". So I read The Traveler ... and have been trying to fit into a context that makes sense ever since.

The Traveler is another near-future dystopian novel, wherein various caballist factions --the Brethren/Tabula, Travelers, and Harlequins -- mix and spar over freedom and control, while the clueless normals all around them have no idea what's going on. Harlequins are charged with protecting Travelers from the Tabula, and that mission forms the bulk of the story, such as it is.

I say that because there just isn't a lot of meat to this book. The characters are flat and unengaging. The story line is thin and predictable -- more so if you've read a lot of science fiction or seen most of the action-thriller movies Hollywood has been cranking out lately. The settings are uninspiring -- especially if one's a Hyperion fan, as I am. The Traveler is a derivative mishmash of Matrix, Highlander, time-traveling mysticism, and techno-thriller elements that, for me, didn't work very well, but will probably be snapped up by some producer for a possible blockbuster movie down the line. The greatest obstacle to that happening is that the author does two unforgivable things: he gives away the mystery of the only exciting subplot in the book much too early, ruining any excitement it could have otherwise built over the course of the storyline; and he does far more "telling" than "showing" throughout the novel. If The Traveler is indeed an accurate representation of what constitutes a mainstream best-seller, I've not missed a thing in avoiding them.

And yet ... despite all these problems, I completed the book, staying up past my usual bedtime twice to do so. There is an interesting story here, severely hampered by poor writing and virtually nonexistent (or clueless) editing. Perhaps, however, the only interest in it is some of the parallels to today's surveillance-and-control society.

The more interesting aspects of The Traveler to me are the questions it spawns: is the author really a libertarian living "off the grid" (his definition of "the grid" is different than the usual one)?; why did a mainstream publisher take on this book -- and give it a huge marketing push? I'm not convinced that the author is libertarian. There's so much more someone committed to liberty could do with a storyline like this -- and pro-freedom individuals aren't generally known for their restraint or subtlety. A clearly delineated case for freedom is absent in The Traveler, something a pro-freedom author probably wouldn't be able to tolerate. I'm still clueless as to why Doubleday published it. Was it to highlight the eerie control-state gaining on us day by day? Or to make a good case for freedom? If it's either of these, it's a very weak effort. If the intent is a subtle spoof of libertarians and/or conspiracy kooks, again The Traveler probably isn't too convincing, because of its fundamental flaws. The only context that makes sense is "movie screenplay", along with "sequel" -- and sure enough, at its close, it's revealed that The Traveler is "Book One of the Fourth Realm". I'm not sure I'll invest the time into exploring Book Two.

The friend who lent me The Traveler liked it; he calls it a "paranoia novel" and says he likes that kind of book in general. Fair enough; it does deliver on paranoia. Wally says it "deserves to be a best seller", and is "the closest we've been in a long time to seeing a libertarian-leaning novel break into the mainstream". If you like dystopian novels, and "paranoid fiction", then perhaps you'll enjoy The Traveler more than I did; but it still seems a lightweight compared to some of its predecessors. If you want meaty, solidly pro-freedom fiction, this one's a pass, though: buy The Black Arrow, RebelFire 1.0: Out of the Gray Zone [Claire and Aaron, forgive me for what I said last month!], or The Third Revolution. Any of them are much more deserving of being the first post-9/11 libertarian novel that breaks into the mainstream.

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