FLESH and GOLD
Author: Dan Simmons
Tor / 288 pages / 1st edition (January 1998)
If you’ve ever studied a museum-quality tapestry, then you know the true meaning of intricacy, been amazed that single threads could mesh to form a complex and mesmerizing whole. If you zoomed through in search of Andy Warhol’s work, and missed the beauty and complexity, the awe-inspiring impact of painstaking artistry, shame on you. If you miss the rich weave of Gotlieb’s treasures, you are beyond redemption.
Flesh and Gold begins with a bewildering array of characters, locals, and hints of plotting by and against virtually every exotic person or race mentioned. Beings of the land make use of those from the sea. It is an unequal partnership in which the unsophisticated amphibious Folk are destined to suffer. It is a situation which will force one very special water creature to a dangerous world far away.
Skerow, one of the reptilian, telepathic Khagodi, travels the universe in her capacity as a Galactic Federation judge. A chance sighting in a red-light district will take her places she can’t imagine. Ned Gattes wanders the planets as a “pug” or professional fighter and, unknown to all but a few, as an agent of the GalFed. The information provided by Skerow will send him away on a mission short on details, but rife with danger. Neither can fathom the depth of the deceptions facing them. No one will understand until the action is played out what atrocities are taking place just out of sight.
Gotlieb pulls in the threads of her many story lines to weave a tale unlike any before it. The characters who inhabit this unfamiliar universe are as fleshed-out as they are alien. Humanoids, under her control, bear as little resemblance to you and me and the couple next door as we do to the monsters that populate our dreams. Which is the preferred incarnation is left open to debate.
With Flesh and Gold, Gotlieb ties together three of the few constants of civilizations: greed, lust, and cruelty. The factors of empathy, duty, and love are the flip side in this richly textured construct. In a clash between the vices and virtues, it is not a foregone conclusion which side will triumph; it is a slippery task to pin a label on the characters. Nothing comes easy, including interpretations.
In a novel of such artistry and complexity, it might seem easy to lose track of the action, but worry not: Flesh and Gold fastens onto the reader with talons sharper than the most dangerous opponent’s. Unlike the characters in the novel, no reader will struggle to be freed.
Flesh and Gold is that most rare of specimens — a work of literary science fiction that excites and enthralls. It is a masterpiece that will endure.
Although we are so little into the new year, it is difficult to imagine a novel appearing in the coming months that will force this one off the short list of every major award in the genre.