Cold Earth Wanderers by Peter Wortsman
Pelekinesis, 2014; 220 pp
Reviewed by Jack Hill
Peter Wortsman's novel, Cold Earth Wanderers, is garnering much attention as one of the best independent science fiction novels of 2014 and is well-deserving of such praise. Written precisely and with stylistic glimmers of Ray Bradbury, J.G. Ballard, and Kurt Vonnegut, Wortsman's novel follows sixteen year old Elgin Marble as he defects from a vertically-focused dystopian future society after his father, an elevator operator, dies. Elgin joins a resistance movement known as the Crabs who are tunneling toward an outside world, and away from the massive tower in which they live, in hopes of finding freedom from the sterile surveillance-society they've known their whole lives.
However, in the wake of overpopulation, global warming, and rainforest clearcutting, Wortsman offers a possible justification for the Orwellian vertical society in that they live efficiently when the "Inter-Eye commentators" state:
"Our forefathers were a frivolous lot [. . .] Heady with a sense of surplus space and careless of diminishing resources, they consumed themselves in a final feeding frenzy. In the rubble of their excesses we built up a perfect world. Having progressed beyond the primitive horizontal drive of homo-erectus, we have no need to scuttle along repulsively from place to place. Man was not made to crawl like a crab in the mud, but to stand upright and reach for the stars! Stay tuned and stand tall!" (61)
This vertical-thinking about past civilizations deeply complicates Elgin's journey with the Crabs as well as Ellen's (his mother) quest to find him as she's blackmailed into violent sex with Elgin's school principal, Dr. Orion. In that, both mother and son are forced to question their individual hopes, dreams, and ideologies, against a backdrop of state control. And, Wortsman brings a fresh eye to this sort of inquiry through characters that often speak in analogies, metaphors, and riddles, saying things like: "Adolescence and senility have a few things in common. The longing's the same, the fumbling too, only the perspective is different: he's looking forward, I'm looking back" (122). Throughout the novel, these idea-nuggets drive Wortsman's scenes forward, propelling the action, but also forcing us to slow down as we are witness to Elgin's coming of age and Ellen's transition toward self-reliance.
As Wortsman takes us lower, into frightening places and strange caverns, we can feel and relate to the crushing weight of life itself as Elgin finds a bit of solace in the dark:
Accustomed from many a scavenging expedition, he felt no fear of the dark. On the contrary, he breathed easy under its blanket of invisibility, protecting him from the prods of the vertical world: from the dullness and drivel of school with the principal's foolish reflections flashing on the Inter-Eye screen in between bell; from the intrusive simplicity of Herbert, Jr., the neighbor's boy; from the ache of his father's loss; and from the oppressive intensity of his mother's love. (77)
Wortsman seamlessly pulls us in through these moments of solace and certainty while also turning everything on its head as Elgin becomes more involved with the Crabs, and unsure of the world, vertical or horizontal. In that ideological uncertainty, Wortsman mines away at the human condition which is what makes Elgin's and Ellen's story such an interesting read. Peter Wortsman's Cold Earth Wanderers carves out a place for itself among the many great science fiction novels that have come before it because of the fresh take on the old notion that sometimes things are not what they seem.