What if knowing the exact date of your death was a luxury good?
James Kennedy’s debut novel Order of the Odd-Fish ran like a very successful of dares between the author and himself — Kennedy just kept ratcheting up the weirdness in the book, piling up the comic and surreal, to the point where the book should, by all rights, have collapsed beneath its own silliness. But it didn’t!
Instead, Kennedy produced a tale of magic. As I wrote in my review, “This is what Harry Potter would be if its magic world was truly wondrous and magnificent, as opposed to plain reality with broomsticks and funny robes.”
Here’s how I ended that review: “An epic novel of exotic pie, Götterdämmerung, mutants, evil, crime, and musical theater, Odd-Fish is a truly odd fish, as mannered and crazy as an eel in a tuxedo dropped down your trousers during a performance of The Ring Cycle.”
That was in 2011. After that, I didn’t see any more books from Kennedy, though I held onto my copy of Odd-Fish and thought of it from time to time. Now, 11 years later, I’ve just finished Kennedy’s second novel, Dare to Know, a much darker book that still walks a fine line between fanciful and formless — and nails it.
The premise of Dare to Know is a good, old-fashioned science fiction idea: what if there was a science that could predict your death? It’s an idea as least as old as Heinlein’s “Life-Line” — his first story.
It’s an idea that’s been taken up for the internet age, too, of course: most notably by Ryan North, David Malki and and Matthew Bennardo’s “Machine of Death,” a pair of shared world anthologies (and a game!) about a machine that could predict the manner of your death.
The vast differences between “Life-Line,” “Machine of Death,” and Dare to Know are quite a testament to the unimportance of “originality” — ideas are easy, execution is hard. Charlie Stross, Neal Stephenson and I all published gold-farming heist novels within a few months of each other (Rule 34, Reamde and For the Win) and they are wildly different books.
Kennedy’s time-of-death story revolves around a failed wunderkind, a nameless salesman who works for Dare to Know, a company whose product is a precise calculation of your moment of death. Once upon a time, the salesman was a brilliant young philosophy major and mathematical prodigy who became a star of the company in its original incarnation, when it was called Sapere Aude (Latin for “Dare to Know”).
But a series of poor life-choices — breaking up with the love of his life, cheating on his wife — and the collapse of Dare to Know’s profits in the face of stiff competition has left the salesman in dire straits. He can still close a sale when he has to, and he can still do the calculations needed to tell you when you’ll die, but he is broke, lonely and depressed.
Dare to Know jumps around the salesman’s memoir. We learn of his boyhood at a nerdy physics summer-camp where he and his roommate bonded after being bullied for being too nerdy. We see his rise through Sapere Aude’s ranks, and the impact Sapere Aude’s product had on the world and the technicians who dispensed that product.
We learn how that product works — sort of. Kennedy — a physics and philosopher by training — tells us of a particle called a thanaton, one that streams backwards in time from the moment of our death, whose trajectory can be followed to that moment. But calculating that trajectory is more art than science, involving a new form of “subjective mathematics” that can only be wielded by people with a certain knack for it, and each person learns how to perform those calculations in their own way.
We learn about the protagonist’s failed romances, the co-workers who rose with Sapere Aude, and we learn about the philosophical questions raised by this, and see how the world is (and isn’t) transformed by this super-luxury product of knowing the time of your own death.
All of this is a scaffold for a series of ever-weirder encounters in the protagonist’s life. Many of these revolve around an Apple 2 game that’s a kind of pastiche of the classic platformer Aztec, but one haunted by an enemy familiar to Prince of Persia fans. This is the “flickering man” — a sprite that is an inversion of the player’s own character, which flickers into existence in rare and unpredictable moments (the Apple 2 version of Prince of Persia used all kinds of clever memory-saving hacks, including a level boss that recycled the character’s own sprite but inverted it).
The flickering man is a mysterious omen, along with a mysterious, faceless woman that haunts the protagonist’s dream. They’re joined by certain works of music (The Beatles’ awful “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”) and the traumatic consequences visited upon Sapere Aude employees who violated the prohibition on looking up their own dates of death.
This out-of-order storytelling, the ominous portents of the protagonist’s life, the historical flashbacks to the ritual killings of the Cahokia mounds of Missouri, and the spiraling misery of a life in tatters — it should all fall to pieces, but it doesn’t. Instead, it comes together as a voraciously readable page-turner of a novel, part creepypasta, part thought-experiment.
Atmospherically, this book shares a lot in common with @grossmanbooks’s outstanding 2013 novel YOU, another existential, semi-mystical memoir of disenchantment with technology and obsession with game-worlds.
But it’s also got some common lineage with David Graeber and David Wengrow’s blockbuster The Rise of Everything, in its heavy connections to ancient rite and culture, and its insistence that we imagine the people of antiquity as being as smart and capable as we ourselves are:
Odd-Fish was a young adult novel, while Dare to Know is a book for adults, and while the former is whimsical and the latter is more brooding, they are both clearly products of the same imagination, executed with the same confident one-upmanship in which the weird is piled higher than it can possibly go — and yet, it soars.