Book Review: 'The Dark' by Forrest Carr

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Book Review: 'The Dark' by Forrest Carr

Last year, I had fun reading Forrest Carr's zombie apocalypse novel A Journal of the Crazy Year (You can read my review here). It introduced me to Carr's unique style in blending science fiction and horror themes in fascinating ways; and now, he's back with a new sci-fi horror called The Dark, and despite its simpler title, it's actually more psychologically and thematically complex than the previous novel. Its daring voyage explores an unthinkable possibility: What if it were possible to go so far out into space that you reach place where God does not exist?

The Dark follows the journey of three dozen astronauts, scientists, and observers of the N.A.U.S. Santa Maria as they fly so far into space to probe the edge of the unknown universe. This reminds me of the ambitious quest of China Mieville's The Scar, in which the city of ships is on a quest to find the fabled Scar, a place where reality breaks down and anything is possible. In Carr's novel, however, it sounds like the crew is heading to a place where nothing is possible, and this absurd premise made me wonder what could possibly motivate the crew to embark on this audacious quest. What's the point? What could they potentially gain from reaching the unimaginable edge of the universe? The characters' motives are as elusive as their destination. 

The cast is huge, and among those on board, the ones who stand out are introduced early, and at first , I couldn't tell whose story it's focused on since there's a lot of minor characters throughout the first act that I couldn't figure if they would eventually be a part of a greater conflict later on. The most developed character is definitely Father Cameron Teal, a scientist who wears a priest collar, the director of the Vatican Observatory, recruited for the mission by an iconic indutrialist who secretly hopes to find God. He seems to be just a typical priest, a supporting character with little personal ties to the crew's mission at first, but he does some unexpected things later on. A religious scientist is an intriguing figure, yet no matter how elusive he is, Carr skillfully develops his character into someone believable. And I find Teal's words wise; early on, he blurs the division between God and science: "God gave man a brain. It makes no sense to argue that he doesn't want us to use it."

Would Father Teal eventually unravel the existence or nonexistence of God by reaching The Dark? It just astounds me how the members of the Santa Maria decided to join this mission. This isn't the science fiction version of Conrad's Heart of Darkness -- The Dark here seems literally "nowhere", so why the hell are they heading there? One claims that their journey would eventually produce a "a new inspiration for the advancement of our race." The purpose sounds ridiculous, but I didn't find enough reasons to care about the characters' fates because they didn't seem to have a lot of personal stakes to it. 

But it's not just the Why of what they do that bewilders me; the How of reaching The Dark is as obscure. The mission's purpose is said to generate publicity and excitement for the company, but how? There are talks of astrogation computers and dimensions, which remind me of Interstellar's concepts, yet physical details are diminished, and their explanations aren't convincing. There's not a lot of visual imagery to spice the experience. There's a nice contrast of light and dark images that extend figuratively later, but the lack of concrete details makes the experience dull. I kept scratching my head as I wondered how they could possibly come up with the technology to go super far, "9.3 million billion billion billlion light years." However, I find some scientific ideas about cosmological horizons and dimension jumps exciting, and I actually like how Carr doesn't meticulously describe cetain aspects. 

Santa Maria's captain, Ceremeno Jr., is a cold character. I could picture him as a typical militaristic leader with sinister intentions, kind of like King Bradley from Fullmetal Alchemist minus the superior fighting skills. DeVegas, one of the most active characters in the latter half of the novel, is also a formidable leader, and I think both of them naturally stand out, and a lot of the support characters like Chief Astrogator Lydia Nguyen Jones, Dr. Morton Makowski, and the inquisitive A.I. Wilson seem important, but I just wish they were more fleshed out for readers to give a damn about what happens to them. 

Carr's lengthy chapters make the reading experience somewhat breathless, though they are appropriately divided. The majority of the narrative runs through character dialogues, of the crew reporting strange occurences or technical mishaps. The momentum picks up around 40% of the novel, when an inciting incident happens in the ship. This is the point when it gets more interesting, when you can feel the tension between the characters. You can almost feel the suspense with Ceremeno's expression of What the hell is going on?. And this turning point to a more horror-than-science fiction story almost made me forget the book's draggy start. Spiders emerging from a dead man's mouth and psychological stresses would really make you wonder what the hell is going on. I've never seen anyone describe darkness so vividly. It's almost like a living monster, but Carr isn't just using darkness as a visual entity but more like an instrument of spiritual ideas --"Nothing is possible without God". The arguments about the possibility of God not being in "nowhere" are so amusing, I'd call it the meat of The Dark. Father Teal quoted the perfect Bible verse for it: 

Matthew 25, v. 30:
"And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth." 

Some passages about the darkness read like a lecture on visual cues, yet I appreciate the ambiguity in them. Carr continues to build upon the meaning of light and darkness with holy references that make me wonder if The Dark is intended to be a story of salvation, of Christian transcendence, and spiritual quest to meet God himself (or perhaps to escape him?).  

"On earth, the light of God is all around us. It's a light whose only color is that of goodness. The virtue within a person  —if there is any —will reflect the light back. But without the light of God, you can't perceive the goodness. You only see black, the evil in that person's heart. Just like what we're seeing now. Nothing but evil." 

The transition from the physical to the spiritual is clear: The most interesting part of The Dark is how Carr describes the laws of physics then deconstructs them, bends rules and logic to mesmerize. The domain of The Dark is a blank page  —laws could be rewritten. The final chapter of The Dark is as suspenseful as James Cameron's Alien films, and ends with a sweet Christian note. What makes Carr's novel compelling isn't its science fiction or horror elements (I wish there were weirder things than spiders and shadowy figures!), but its abstract ideas conjured by the darkness. 


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