Previously, on Amalgamated Novels Under Scrutiny:
For the sake of A.N.U.S. Reviews being on-brand with The Retributionists, I do hope for (and expect) a complete stinker of a book to pop up somewhere in this bundle. Judging the books by their covers, I'd say that The Time-Servers and The Purgatory Zone look the most likely to be stinky.
I have now read The Purgatory Zone, and all I can say to summarize the experience is... I could easily imagine a worse book but this one absolutely did not land for me. Let's talk about it.
The Plot of The Purgatory Zone Maybe
Ravi Shannon didn't fit. He ignored all the proper social adjustment techniques, rejected the telepathic communication that bound all of Zen Richelem together in harmony – and worst of all, he denied that there was anything wrong with any of this.
This book goes into some weird territory that makes it so that there are actually multiple valid interpretations of the events of this novel. I'll start with the most literal interpretation of the events of this novel, which I do think is the most likely to be canonical. Then we'll cover some alternative possibilities.
Probably the actual plot: In the opening of this book, we meet our protagonist, Ravi Shannon. He is a non-psychic in a world of psychics. His whole life, he has longed to live in a REAL world where he can FIGHT and HAVE SEX. He runs off to the Time Van that will take him to a new Time Zone called The Purgatory Zone, which turns out to be an alternative version of Earth with a rigid caste system. This world's version of Ravi Shannon is named Raver Shanty, who does a lot of hallucinogenic drugs and also everyone mistakes Ravi for Raver because they are the same person maybe. Ravi Shannon spends approximately 200 pages of the book imprisoned by various groups because they think he is a poor person (Raver), but then it turns out he might actually be a rich person (Ra-ra) so he is freed and then he escapes back to his original Time Zone. Back home, Ravi Shannon promptly learns that Time Zones were made up and it was all a dream that the other psychics put him through to teach him a lesson on how to stop being a loser and start being a psychic already.
Alternative Plot A: Ravi Shannon was actually killed when he went to the Time Van, and everything that happened afterwards was some type of afterlife.
Alternative Plot B: Raver Shanty is the "real" Ravi, and everything about psychics or Time Zones was something that he hallucinated.
Alternative Plot C: Time Zones are real and Ravi did travel between them, and the end of the book where the psychics tell him that Time Zones are fake was just the psychics lying to him again like they have always done before.
Again, I think that the first plot described here is what we're supposed to come away with as the "real" story, and it's what I'll be assuming going forward, but I did want to address that there are other possibilities. Which, honestly I have no gripes about. Multiple possible plots is kewl as far as I care. My gripes are more to do with poorly handled themes and a meh reading experience.
Things I Thought This Book Might Have Been About Which Would Have Made It Better
"We could run away," he said.
She looked at him with genuine astonishment. Then she laughed.
In the opening, the way that Ravi Shannon is described in contrast to the rest of his society really did make me think we were going to be dealing with some Themes™ here. Namely, I thought that this was going to be a metaphor for autism or maybe for being an immigrant from another culture. I got this from the way Ravi doesn't think like everyone else does, the way that everyone treats him as "lesser" for it, and the way that everyone kind of seems to lead him on and not be up front about anything with him. It is super possible that a novel set entirely in the psychics' world could have dug into some really interesting ideas and metaphors and themes about how society treats those with different mentalities. BUT FUCK THAT, GET IN THE TIME VAN WE'RE GOING TO THE PURGATORY ZONE WHICH IS ALSO EARTH WHICH IS ALSO A DREAM.
Another thing is that this novel has e v e r y opportunity to make commentary on wealth inequality. Like, the entire crux of The Purgatory Zone is that there are three castes—basically lower-, middle-, and upper-class—and everyone acknowledges these and acts in accordance with them. But for as much time as we spend in the midst of this system, it kinda fumbles everything and we don't realllly get any substantial takeaways, at least I didn't. If you're poor things are bad for you. If you're rich things are good for you maybe. Okay. Ravi does seem to go from poor to immediately fabulously wealthy when he does a morally good thing, which may be going for a karmic thing, but also that was probably just the psychics intervening to teach him a lesson which is not dissimilar to karma but does make it kinda muddled, and also there are some pretty awful people from every caste in this, soooo idk.
I would have even liked it more if Ravi Shannon did get his wish from the Time Van, and he got to go to a world where he can fight and have sex and go on adventures. That could have been fun. But nah, he spends most of the book in church jail, actual jail, psychic jail, and military jail.
The ending really seems to dampen any themes that the rest of the book might have been going for. His community of psychics were putting him on the entire time, just like they were at the beginning, except now it worked out and he is psychic and gets to be part of their community. It is acknowledged that this deception and manipulation might be a bad thing, but there is also no getting around the fact that this seems to portray everything as working out anyways. Not a great look. Do not like. If that's going to be the point of the book, then I want a lot more of the book to be spent making that argument to convince me, instead of just slapping it in right at the end and walking away.
Ravi Shannon Is Confused By Everything And Also This Book Has A Lot Of Acronyms
Young Beautiful People sometimes engage in what is known as 'dipping,' i.e., they take up occupations as BG's or they live among the SD's under assumed identities, but such inter-caste mingling is very rarely permanent.
Ravi Shannon is confused by a lot of things in The Purgatory Zone. Things he is confused by include:
- Most types of food such as hotdogs and chili
- Any slang term for anything
- Governments hiring contractors
- The legal system
- Why water is used in toilets
And that is not at all an exhaustive list, those are just a few that I remembered. Basically 100% of this book is Ravi Shannon being confused by things.
This type of thing where an alien doesn't get how everyday stuff works can be done effectively. I think it works fine in movies like The Fifth Element, Galaxy Quest, and Elf. But in this book, it ain't working for me. If it was going for comedic effect, then that doesn't work for me because Ravi Shannon is not charming—deliberately so, it seems like—and there is not an abundance of charm in the narration to make up for it. And if Ravi's confusion was being used as a method of criticising society, then it doesn't work because any commentary that it might be trying to scratch at is sooo surface-level. The only slim hope here is that maybe it was going for thematic effect by continuing the thread of Ravi not understanding how other people work, but honestly, it realllly reads like the author just wanted to make boner-pill jokes at Ravi's expense.
Also this book has a lot of acronyms, some of which are made up and some of which are from the real word. A not-exhaustive list of acronyms in this book includes:
- S&M (yes the sex one)
Honestly it's weird. With all of the parallel universes, psychics, hallucinogenic drug use, unnecessary acronyms, and socially oblivious protagonist, this book seems like it should be extremely confusing, but it was weirdly easy to keep track of everything. If I'm giving the book credit for anything, it's that I don't think I was ever more lost than I was supposed to be.
Giving The Book Credit
"Paradise Dice," Clancy said. "You roll them, as they say; and if you're lucky you zoom off to paradise.
"What if you're unlucky?"
"Then you plunge, down to the pits of hell."
There actually are a lot of ways in which this book could have been worse. Even though it wasn't working for me as a whole, here is a list of things I can say to this book's credit:
- This book was not overtly racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise hateful. Could it have handled issues of race and sex with more nuance (or at all)? Sure. But for 1981, this is seriously not bad.
- Even though this book didn't hook me personally, I could imagine it working for someone who was really into psychic alien stuff.
- The hallucinogenic drugs in this book are called Paradise Dice which is a good name for a hallucinogenic drug.
- Like I said, this book was not confusing even though it had the potential to be. I have read books set in the real world that I was infinitely more confused by. Props to the author for keeping it followable.
Was The Purgatory Zone Stinky?
I will tentatively say that yyyyyyes, The Purgatory Zone was a stinky reading experience for me personally. I spent a lot of time not liking the protagonist, not liking the setting, and not liking the plot. At the same time though, I will acknowledge that the quality of the prose is alright, and if someone did like the protagonist or setting or plot, this book might be alright for them. I would give it a thumbs down overall if I'm being honest, and I don't imagine I'll be recommending it to anyone, but as an ironic reading experience, pretty dank.
This is Ray Thompson for A.N.U.S. Reviews, signing off o7