This book isn’t a stand-alone novel, but number of short stories published in serial form in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Having said that, they have stitched together very well and without Robert J. Sawyer’s admiring Foreword, I wouldn’t have realised that The Commons was anything other than a straightforward novel.
For 100,000 years, Old Earth’s Institute for Historical Inquiry has mapped the collective unconscious of the human race. It has encountered all the archetypal figures – the Wise Man and the Fool, the Destroyer and the Redeemer – the ‘usual suspects’ that populate the myths and legends at the back of the human mind.
And now young Guth Bandar begins to believe that the collective unconscious has become aware of itself. Worse, it has an agenda. And worst of all, it can force Bandar to go deep into the darkest forest of the mind, where the only escape from madness is death.
This book charts Guth Bandar’s adventures in the Commons – the name for the collective unconscious – from his time as a young student trying to prove himself, to the climax of the story when he is in his middle years, still trying to prove himself. The protagonist is extremely well-drawn and likeable, as much for his failings that are charted in witty, unblinking detail – along with his strengths. So as he stumbles into yet another mind-threatening adventure, I was right alongside, hoping that he would prevail.
Despite the fact that the focus and subject matter is all about human psychology, there is plenty of visceral action here. The archetypes are ever-hungry for new people to populate their constant enactments of Situations and Events, even if the outcome leads to violent death. Which, being the human unconscious, happens only too often. However, don’t expect to be whipped along at breakneck speed a la David Gunn or Simon R Green, from one gore-drenched episode to the next. Hughes is offering so much more. The writing style is literate and restrained, even when the action gets bloodily heated – and there are constant shafts of witty humour.
For me the outstanding feature of The Commons is the intelligence that shines through the writing. Hughes is a bright guy – and, even better – he also assumes that his readers have more than a brain cell behind each eye to decode the words. Which ensures that as well as offering an unusually intriguing action adventure story, Hughes also gives us plenty to think about regarding the human mind. The role of story myths and legends within our society; the flexibility of knowledge, once we have identified and codified facts; how strongly expectation confines human behaviour… These are some of the ideas I found myself wondering about after finishing the book, which was gripping enough to keep me reading far into the morning.
If you have ever put down an H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, muttering ‘They don’t write them like that, anymore…’ then look out for Matthew Hughes. This author is their worthy successor.