Review: The Meaning of the Dark, Sci Fi Thriller by Joseph Sale

I have just read The Meaning of the Dark, a sci-fi thriller by Joseph Sale, that perhaps most recalls ’2001: A Space Odyssey’ in its situational tropes – man alone in space with a human-like computer on a voyage of discovery – but which in other respects is entirely original. In truth the book is really a psychological thriller; an exploration of the mind of man, as much as an exploration of space itself; and in the mind of man, as we know from Gerard Manley Hopkins, the ‘mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/ Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed’.The story, apart from the final chapter, Discovery 71, is told in the first person and this is entirely appropriate for the effects that Sale is trying to achieve: a concentration of one man’s will, thoughts, emotions faced not only with the prospect of his own personal death alone in space, but also, as a consequence of his failure, the probable demise of the whole human race – or what remains of it, as Earth has long since been vacated. For this story, then, to work the central character – indeed the only character we encounter in real time until the final chapter – has to be resourceful, interesting, intriguing and maybe even symbolic. Symbolic, perhaps, of every man, so that we can identify and be interested in his fate.

A personal side note here: before 1995 I avariciously read novels, but since then my tastes have strayed to non-fiction and I find it difficult to get excited by fiction (excepting poetry). That said, this novel is a total page-turner: I found myself unable to put the book down; I was completely absorbed in this one, lead character. And without labouring the point, symbolically, the character is called Adam. Sale turns on effortlessly the mythological references without at any point drawing attention to the fact. Not only that I suspect that whilst he is ‘loading every vein with ore’ in terms of deeper mythology and symbolism, he is simultaneously aligning the story with his own life and psyche, so that the story has – as bizarre as that might seem – a personal resonance. ‘Style most shows a man’ as Ben Jonson once observed, and it is here in Sale’s writing. A small, tell-tale example of what I mean – and so understated – might be the number of the Pilot: Adam is Pilot 93, which only becomes significant if we realise that the author himself was born in 1993! Every man, finally, boils down to one man, one representative.But the power of the story does not depend just on the power of Adam’s thoughts and feelings and responses to deep space – as fascinating and profound as some of these insights are. No, the drama is built round a triangle. After Adam, there is the spaceship’s computer, Penny. We learn that she has been imbued with a personality ‘upload’; a fact that Adam finds difficult to accept or believe, except to say that Penny is a fascinating ‘character’ who is constantly interacting with the hero, Adam. And of course on a symbolic level, Penny is actually Penelope: the mythical wife who draws Odysseus home through all his trials and tribulations. Penny seems to be on Adam’s side, but is she? Then, with that drama running, we have the black box from the wreck of an earlier space craft, Columbus (yes, also trying to find that brave new world where humans can live!). The audio-video, or Logs, that can Adam can play from this wreck become almost embodiments of the meaning of all human history, and although what Adam sees and hears has happened long ago, yet their presence becomes entirely ‘present’ to him on the journey. Will the load of human history ultimately destroy or empower him?

It would be wrong to give away the resolution of this wonderful novel: suffice to say it is gripping until to the very last sentence. And in case it sounds all so high falutin and symbolic, you do need to know that the descriptive ability of Joseph Sale is truly remarkable. You feel the claustrophobia on the space ship; you can almost smell the vomit; and you see what can be seen in deep space in a remarkable series of descriptions. In short, Sale creates a fully-imagined world, which is why the whole story so believable.Thus, I strongly recommend this novel to anyone who wants a gripping read, to anyone who wants to escape the Earth and explore new worlds, and to anyone who wants to find out what happens to the mind when the pressure of space threatens to bend it into dreadful, delusional states. This is a five-star novel and I do believe that Joseph Sale is a major writer in the making.