Anderson O’Donnell, Kingdom, Tiber City Press, 2012.
In a secret laboratory hidden under the desert, a covert bioengineering project--codename "Exodus"--has discovered the gene responsible for the human soul.
Somewhere in the neon sprawl outside the nation's collapsing economic core, a group of renegade monks are on the verge of uncovering a secret that has eluded mankind for centuries.
In a glittering tower high above the urban decay, an ascendant U.S. Senator is found dead--an apparent, yet inexplicable, suicide.
And in the streets below, a young man races through an ultra modern metropolis on the verge of a violent revolution....closing in on the terrible truth behind Exodus--and one man's dark vision for the future of mankind.
Welcome to Tiber City.
"Against a backdrop of dystopian urban sprawl and human suffering, a morally questionable scientific corporation hunts for the gene responsible for the soul in O’Donnell’s debut novel, the first in a planned sci-fi trilogy.
As the novel begins, the chronology bounces forward and backward from the late 1980s—when scientist Jonathan Campbell flees from the “Exodus” project he has been working on after he discovers the horrifying human experiments authorized by his employer, Mr. Morrison—to a grim 2015. In the not-too-distant future, Morrison has nearly reached his goals, which involve genetic experimentation and test-tube humans, and Campbell has spent the past 30 years hiding among a secret order devoted to cultivating the soul, part of which involves rescuing Morrison’s human collateral damage. Meanwhile, the novel also tracks a troubled, drug-addicted young man, Dylan Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s father was once a promising presidential candidate before committing suicide when Dylan was a boy—a thread that dovetails with the main arc in surprising, harrowing ways. O’Donnell captures the darkness in humanity and the world, particularly in such elegantly composed passages as this one: “Morrison imagined women and children packed into…overcrowded refugee camps…mistaking the deployment of a Predator missile for a shooting star, making a wish as a $40 million toy dealt death from impossible heights.” The overall effectis a taut, brilliantly conceived thriller with impeccable pacing bursting with ideas.
For fans of noir-laden science fiction in the vein of Philip K. Dick that is in equal measures suspenseful, gripping, darkly funny and philosophically challenging." - Kirkus Reviews
By Ashley Crawford
“GENEVA — Scientists working at the world’s biggest atom smasher plan to announce Wednesday that they have gathered enough evidence to show that the long-sought “God particle” answering fundamental questions about the universe almost certainly does exist.” – Associated Press, July 2, 2012, 8.50am.
Why physicists dubbed this mysterious atom a “God” particle remain fuzzy at best, but evoking ‘His’ name is always a good fall back position when it comes to mysterious phenomena. It’s not unlike using that other mysterious description, the ‘soul’ – but that one, we now know, was solved in May, 2012 and exposed in a covert document titled Kingdom which outlined the bioengineering project named Exodus which in turn led to the discovery the gene responsible for the human soul.
“The soul is like an uninhabited world that comes to life only when God lays His head against us.” So said the philosopher and Dominican Monk Thomas Aquinas some centuries ago. But reading Kingdom, the notion of there being a God – someone or something taking control – including the author himself – seems spurious at best.
Kingdom is the self-published debut novel from the rogue Connecticut-based Jameson-tippler Anderson O’Donnell. As a first book, Kingdom has its jittery moments as O’Donnell tries to get his stride and take on the monstrously huge ideas that sit at the novel’s core, but once he does the combined pot pouri of adrenalin, Lysergic acid diethylamide and Irish whiskey washes us down a rabbit hole of murderous monks, deranged scientists and twisted neon-lit streets. As Jack O'Connell, Author of Box Nine and The Resurrectionist, says of Kingdom: “Toss William Gibson, Andrew Vachss and David Fincher into the Petri dish, irradiate them, then infuse the result with Transylvanian meth, and you'll have some sense of what O'Donnell has concocted.”
Indeed it was Jack O’Connell’s name that alerted 21•C to Kingdom and his searingly funny introduction to the book that sealed the deal. O’Connell’s dark city-scape of Quinsigamond is a clear influence on O’Donnell’s Tiber as is William Gibson’s Sprawl, John Shirley’s San Francisco, Ridley Scott’s and Philip K. Dick’s mutated visions of Los Angeles and Samuel R. Delaney’s Bellona in Dhalgren. The city itself heaves and groans under the weight of post-industrial mayhem and spiritual malaise.
Combining hard-hitting noir, genomic science, theological musings and a city as gritty, rusted and blasted as Delany’s or Jack O’Connell’s, O’Donnell has come up with a bio-punk saga from hell. Indeed, it would seem that the fact that the gene for the human soul has been discovered transpires to not necessarily be a good thing. The discovery is made during the process of creating human replicants via use of human genome mapping, but one gene seems to go missing, leading to physical, philosophical and psychological horrors that would make Cronenberg jealous.
The resulting saga reads like a futuristic Raymond Chandler novel colliding with Philip K. Dick-like philosophical musings. All the noir clichés are here but delivered with an electro-magnetic jolt. The book is set in a near-future metropolis – Tiber City – a city that is as ill as many of its characters. Like William Gibson in his Sprawl series, O’Donnell is at pains to drag his readers kicking and screaming through its streets and into the cigarette-saturated environs of the nearest bar for innumerable glasses of Jameson – neat, thank you. As a first novel, it’s a rough-hewn book that takes time to build up steam and congeal its multifarious characters and twisting story-lines but once it does the adrenalin blast of events and ideas are breathtaking. Everything is up for grabs here – most especially your soul.
The book follows two key characters, a geneticist named Campbell who was usurped his protégée, the mad scientist Morrison, and a youthful and initially dislikeable family fortune heir named Dylan who starts out doing little but ingesting enough cocaine to inspire nasal blood loss in extremis but evolves into a masterful piece of maturing characterisation.
The central premise of the book – the discovery of the ‘soul gene’ – could well inspire book-burning events around the United States by born-again Christians, a notion that doesn’t seem to overly perturb O’Donnell as he sips from a smoky glass. “How does the old saying go – ‘Any publicity is good publicity?’ he mutters. “But in all seriousness, I’m prepared for people to react strongly to some of the ideas in my book. Actually, I’d be disappointed if they didn’t – there is no point in writing if you don’t have something compelling to say. Especially these days, when everyone and their dog has a blog or tumblr or whatever. Controversy means that at least someone is taking what you’re saying seriously; that your ideas strike someone as dangerous and worthy of censor.”
The very notion of the ‘soul’ has a history as long as mankind itself. Its various manifestation occur through every tribe across Hell’s Creation, from ancient Australian Aboriginal cultures through to various formulations in Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and every other religious variation. Not surprisingly, with a solid Irish name like O’Donnell, the Kingdom author was dragged through that most ‘soul centric’ of religious cults: Roman Catholic, which is, he says, “probably obvious from the book.”
“I’d call myself “lapsed” but these days that seems to be redundant. However, Catholicism is still a very interesting religion. The institution of the Church is fucked, to be sure. But the religion itself is a very old and mystical thing – I mean, transubstantiation? Exorcisms? Not many religions, especially Western ones, can boast that kind of pure ‘magic.’ There is so much ritual and ceremony in the Catholic mass that even as I find myself repulsed by the institution itself, as well as many of the Church’s moral teachings, I can’t completely walk away… there is too much going on there.”
O’Donnell’s premise proclaims “the soul” as a scientific fact, an access point to certain understandings and perhaps a portal to God – and the arguments/discussions in the book certainly tug both ways and raise the question of whether the ‘soul gene’ could also be a symptom of delusion?
“I suppose it could,” O’Donnell admits. “Just one more trick man has invented to soothe the alienation and feeling of separation that comes part and parcel with human consciousness. But, as far as Kingdom goes, the soul gene is real – hence the fact that even when Morrison and company are able to replicate every other human gene, this soul gene remains elusive. If it was simply another one of our delusions, it could have been replicated, and probably even sold for a tidy profit! Swap your old, tired soul gene for a fresh new one – Morrison would have been all over that.”
O’Donnell also strides into the realm of some of the debates and discussions encountered in such books as Umberto Eco’s Foulcault’s Pendulum and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem – books where philosophical musings can run for pages – but O’Donnell, for better or worse, avoids getting too esoteric and avoids the clear temptation to begin quoting Aquinas et al.
“Absolutely,” he says. “In fact, the first few drafts of Kingdom were stuffed with just that sort of esoteric back and forth – lots of heavy discussion on the nature of religious experience, and, of course, Aquinas found his way into the debate. But when I took a step back and reviewed the early drafts, I realized I wanted Kingdom to be more amphetamine and attitude; I didn’t want to sacrifice the feel/flow of the prose just to show off how smart I think I am. And that’s not a shot at Neal or Umberto – those gentlemen are brilliant. But the long dissertation just didn’t work for me. So I made some cuts... good thing I’ve got two sequels in the works, right?”
There is a potent sense of Armageddon and spiritual questioning in a great deal of North American writing of late – McCarthy’s The Road, Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet, Brian Evenson’s Immobility, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One and innumerable other books. O’Donnell believes that there is a key moment that has carved into the culture’s core.
“Without question, North Americans are lost,” he says. “The sense of Armageddon comes from, I believe, 9/11: that event damaged America’s psyche in ways that we can’t even comprehend. And since that day, North America has been a clusterfuck of security checkpoints and terror alerts and unmanned drones and war without end – it’s not hard to see Armageddon on the horizon. I mean, unmanned drones? I can’t help but recall the Skynet concept from the Terminator series. Plus, the 24/7 news cycle fuels this sense of doom and paranoia – content is king, right?
“The spiritual questioning is a bit trickier. Obviously, people have lost faith in traditional religion. But I think there is a sense that, hey – there is something else out there, something we can’t quite grasp or describe, but it’s there… and its supernatural. I think that, not only did people rely on traditional religious institutions for community, etcetera, but churches and synagogues allowed people an opportunity to try and work out this sense of ‘the other’ in their own minds. For example, maybe you didn’t believe everything your faith professed, but it was a helpful way to explore some of life’s mysteries. But since so many people have turned their back on institutional religion, I think a lot of these questions are going unprocessed… a lot of these yearnings unsatisfied. And so you get this spiritual questioning….”
Clearly O’Donnell has taken in a great deal of noir in his time and one classic trope of that genre is “the city.” Tiber is clearly marked by O’Connell’s Quinsigamond and the city-scape of Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren.
“Christ, am I that transparent? Actually, I’m flattered to be associated with those writers, and I have no problem wearing my influences on my sleeve. Guys like Delaney and O’Connell and James Ellroy – those guys are my heroes, and they were the ones who taught me how to bring the city to life, how to use it to flesh out the concepts and philosophies you needed to explore without boring your reader to death. The city can also be a place of wonder and mystery – I’ve always been in love with the idea of two layers to every city: the idea of this swirling underworld infused with a certain dark magic or mystery lurking right below the professional, white collar façade. Having a city like Tiber – a ‘character’ city – made exploring that notion a lot easier.”
“Furthermore, if the city is indeed a character, it’s going to have to grow and evolve like any other character, no? I think that gives the writer a lot more freedom and, to be honest, it’s a hell of a lot more interesting.”
O’Donnell takes great delight in smashing the boundaries between hints of noir, science fiction and other genres, indeed, inventing his own: Bio-punk, a fleshly variation of cyberpunk, a genre that became ill once the Internet proved to be, as O’Donnell has said elsewhere, a “glorified toy.”
“I think that, now more than ever, genre branding is rather limited. The mutability of genre is the result of changes in how people consume information. The rise of digital media has played a huge role in the demise of traditional genre branding. And for two reasons: First, writers and readers alike have a lot more access to genres that might be outside of their normal literary fare – the ‘Oh hey that looks cool I should click the link’ type of browsing… recommendations from friends, and so-forth. And second, people with ideas that maybe don’t fit into a traditional, clearly defined genre have a lot more opportunities to get their work out there. It’s an exciting time, and I think the genre-blending is a lot more reflective of where we are as a society anyway… people are going to respond to that.”
Unsurprisingly, given his generation and do-it-yourself attitude, O’Donnell grew up with the not-so-dulcet tones of punk rock. “ Obviously, I adore The Clash... and lots of the first wave of punks. I dig the Swans and lots of their other post-punk brethren.... But its funny: lots of those bands didn’t have a huge impact on Kingdom. Rather, that’s the music that sustains me across the board – the attitude and independence and DIY spirit that push me and inspire me to create in general.... to drag my ass out of bed before my day job to write. And as far as keeping the day-to-day creative fires burning, some newer ‘punk’ bands have also had a huge impact on me: The Libertines and Rancid and Lucero to name a few.... There is a new album by The Japandroids that is absolutely incredible.
“As to Kingdom itself, I actually put together a soundtrack and published it on Spotify – posted the link on social media and hopefully won’t get sued :), But I tried to capture what Kingdom feels like (to me, anyway) while still putting together something to which people might actually want to listen. So, on this little soundtrack there are artists like The Kills, Kasabian, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Primal Scream, Mark Lanegan, Iggy and the Stooges and the Velvet Underground.
“As for the actual writing itself, I usually toss on trance/euphoria music. I don’t generally talk about trance music with most people (and I don't know if you are familiar with the genre), but I think you'll appreciate what I'm getting at: Trance music helps me slip into that elusive flow state, and seems to give rhythm and drive to the language.... it helps craft the very feel of the words. And I’m fascinated with the idea that there is a universal ‘feeling’, an apprehension of the other? Something similar, anyway, to some of the concepts I mention in Kingdom. There are moments when trance music is able to touch this Other (although some of it is utter crap), and so, it has proven invaluable to my own work.”
One of the great spirits in Kingdom is, of course, Jameson. There’s also a fair bit of smoking going on – it is a world that is a far cry from the sanitized notions of socializing in this day an age, a world where bars still favor muted lighting in order to cover the scars of rough and tumble lives. O’Donnell feels a keen nostalgia for old smoky barrooms where the rules were few.
“Nostalgia would be an understatement,” he states almost bitterly. “Those old smoky barrooms were sanctuaries; these were places that weren’t scripted or sponsored or held hostage by dance parties. There was a simple honesty – an honor among thieves – that came with the dive bar, and I think the societal shift away from the smoky barroom to these squeaky clean ‘Adult Disneyland’ establishments is indicative of so many of the problems of 21st century living.”
Self-publishing in the Internet age has clearly become a very real option for emerging authors and the hive-mind of the on-line world creates new marketing opportunities indeed. Strange mutations are occurring, as seen with Sergio de la Pava’s self-published A Naked Singularity – championed by 21•C, amongst others, it was quickly ‘discovered’ and re-published by the University of Chicago Press. O’Donnell made the deliberate, albeit difficult, decision to go it alone.
“That is correct. It was a choice, albeit one I made with some reservations,” he admits. “I had trouble finding an agent, but I also turned down a publishing contract – the deal wasn’t the right one for Kingdom. I’m still hoping to land a traditional contract, so Otto, if you’re reading this, please give me a call! However, self-publishing has allowed me to learn a great deal about the industry, a publishing world crash course, so to speak. I think a lot of authors shy away from the business aspect of the industry, and wind up getting taken advantage of. Or not getting promoted with the vigor and verve they deserve. Granted, having taken on these responsibilities myself, I’m only sleeping three to four hours a night. But, on a positive note, the lack of REM sleep is producing some fascinating prose.
“As for sequels, Exile, the next installment in the Tiber City Trilogy, is currently scheduled for a summer 2013 launch. I’ve got a few more tricks up my sleeve, and I can’t wait to introduce readers to some new friends – and maybe resurrect an old favorite.”
What arguably sets O’Donnell apart from many of his contemporaries is a curiosity that delves beneath the usual surface structures of narrative fiction. By coincidence we began talking just before a journey I was undertaking with four Indonesian artists of Hindu background to the ancient tribal lands of the Australian aboriginals. This had followed a not dissimilar journey with three Chinese artists through the Australian bush and then on a road trip from Beijing to Lhasa in Tibet – journeys which inevitably raised age-old questions of belief systems and ritual. “Your trip sounds incredible, and it sounds like we're into a lot of the same stuff – the rituals and structures, etcetera,” O’Donnell responded enthusiastically. “I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that there was/is a universal truth/religion that, over the centuries, has been filtered through different cultural belief systems... and that religions are more or less just different cultural interpretations of the same ultimate truth. I plan on doing the exact kind of travel you’re describing, as soon as I have an opportunity.”
Just what such a journey would inject into the cityscape of Tiber is anyone’s guess, but beneath that rough-hewn demeanor that is Anderson O’Donnell’s noir persona roams a curiosity that one hopes we will be reading for many years to come."
"Kingdom is a bit of an oddity to describe; its blurb proclaims it as being a bio-punk thriller however that still doesn't give us any clue into its specifics. I was attracted to it because of the difference of its genre setting and the bio-punk label. Kingdom opens up with in a couple of different time periods; one is in the year 1986 whereas the other one is in 2015. The first thread is about the scientist Jonathan Campbell who is overcome with remorse and guilt because of his dealings with Morrison Biotech, the second thread opens us with Dylan Fitzgerald who is the son of the famous presidential candidate who blew out his brains.
These two are the book’s dual point of view characters, Campbell and Fitzgerald, two men separated by the chasm of time, personal priorities and social stations. Campbell since his meltdown that lead to him escaping from his job at Morrison Biotech has been keeping busy with an order of monks called the Order of Neshamah. It is an order of holy men dealing with science in a quest to know more of about the human soul and its connection with God. Jonathan Campbell is not sure what to make of them however owes them big for dragging him back from his personal abyss and thereby does odd things for them based on his skills. Dylan on the other hand is going through life like a pebble being rattled from nook to crevice by the river flow. He doesn't know what he is looking for amidst the endless stream of coke, parties and girls. Things soon take a turn differently why he starts looking into why his father committed suicide.
The story isn't set in some dystopian future, its set just three years from now, the scary part being no apocalypse occurred, there was no great shift per say. The future that is shown in the book is just simply a fact. It occurs due to reasons that we humans have decided it so and this is one of the parts of the story that the author drives home. That most events in history occur due to human apathy or due to specific human interests, the decline of civilization in America is played out quite nicely through out the story and the author does paint a bleak picture.
The best part about Kingdom is its characterization especially that of Dylan as at first when we meet him, it’s really hard to relate to him. More often than not I felt contempt for him, however to the author’s credit, his character turnaround was brilliantly managed and that really set the tone for the book. Jonathan on the other hand seemed to have gotten the short straw, even though he gets a similar amount of page time, we never quite get into his head or learn what makes him tick exactly. Another plus point is the plot, which is a hodge-podge of SF, thriller and ethical dilemmas. The story takes some weird turns and with all the metaphysical stuff juxtaposed within the context of genetic science, it ventures into territory that is hitherto new. However it is still a thriller book which camouflages itself nicely with the bio-punk label.
The biggest discrepancy however about the book’s plot is in its origins, its never quite thoroughly explained as to why and how the exodus project got off the ground. Yes there are reasons given about creating better, perfect leaders and humans but what was the original spark for it? Who gave it its first push? Such questions and similar ilk are never quite clearly explained. The book however does end on a strong note and lays the foundation for book II in the Tiber City trilogy. I’m hoping that the background and role of the Order of Neshamah is further explored in the sequel as for me their role and intentions were the most interesting part of the story bedsides the plot tracts of both the POV characters. Also the epilogue plays out to a very strong mythological note and in particular gives a crucial pointer towards book II.
CONCLUSION: Kingdom is a different sort of book and Anderson O’Donnell has to be given his due for givin us a story that is different than most SF thrillers, given a few flaws, this debut is still something to be taken notice of. I’m curious to learn more about the author's future plans for the books and what the next chapter will hold for the denizens of Tiber city. Kingdom is a solid three star debut effort and worth your time if you want to read something different in the SF-Thriller genre." - Mihir Wanchoo
Nine Questions with… Anderson O’Donnell