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Hollow World by Michael J. Sullivan

Nila reads what she thinks is a very important piece of science fiction.

Hollow World by Michael J. Sullivan

Published by Michael J. Sullivan and his legion of fans (me included).

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There’s a lot to be said about Hollow World. And after reading the acknowledgements at the end of the book, I feel just a bit odd writing this review. Allow me a moment to explain…sort of.

For the record, though I did back Mr. Sullivan’s project on Kickstarter and while I did know I had some (very small) part in (literally) kick starting this project, I truly had no idea his short story would become Hollow World. Frankly, I forgot about it for some time. As a Kickstarter backer, I received updates, but I pretty much ignored them and really had no intention of reading Hollow World. For anyone who has read the initial short story that seeded the novel, while it was a good short story, you may recall the protagonist is not particularly endearing. So, for me, backing Mr. Sullivan’s Hollow World project was support for his previous works (The Riyria Revelations), and not necessarily an endorsement to write a science fiction story illuminating our social and political missteps. Even though one might think I was predisposed to like this book, I was not. I put off reading it for quite some time. Actually, not until after I received my hard back edition (gorgeously put together by Robin Sullivan) that I thought, with a sigh, okay, I’ll read it.

With that disclaimer made, let’s get to the story, shall we?

Hollow World begins with Ellis Rogers being told he is going to die of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and he laughs. No, he’s not a crazy old man. He just knows something his doctor doesn’t: he’s got a time machine sitting in his garage.

Thus begins Ellis’ journey into a future that is both frightening (to him) and awesome (in the true sense of that word). After learning he’s got so little time left to live, Ellis goes home. His estranged wife, Peggy, is there. Ever since his son’s death years ago, their relationship hasn’t been the same. Ellis thinks she loves the TV more than she loves him. And it seems that Ellis doesn’t feel for her the same as he used to either. Though he doesn’t want to hurt her, that doesn’t make him want to stay. After visiting his best friend down at the local bar, a bigoted, ex-football player, Ellis decides he’s going to do it – he’s going to travel to the future. He tells his buddy, Warren, how he figured out the math to get to the future. Even gives Warren the paper and schematic that explains the impossible machine Ellis’ has built – just in case it blows up. Before Ellis leaves, their last conversation touches on all the things wrong in the world; political oppression, racism, social ineptitude of the next generation, and so on. We get a clear sense that Ellis and Warren are god-fearing, 50’s-loving, old dudes hankering for a world that never was and never will be.

When he goes back home, his wife is gone and he discovers something that catapults him to test the machine now; that very night. There’s nothing keeping him in the present and he’s gonna die anyway, so why not?

Miraculously, the time machine works. Ellis finds himself in a forest so majestic he wonders if he got the math right. Could he be on another planet or somewhere in the Amazonian jungle? He’s expecting a great city with skyscrapers and flying cars, not an ancient forest. Regardless, there’s just enough familiarity in the landscape for Ellis to make his way down to a valley that contains, surprisingly enough, the Henry Ford Museum. He’s in Dearborn, Michigan. As he tries to find an entrance to the museum and reconcile the changes in the landscape, he overhears a troubling conversation on the other side of the walled museum compound. To his dismay, it sounds as if there’s a murder in progress. He runs around till he finds the gate and sees something so alarming, it is a wonder he doesn’t have a heart attack.

I am very tempted to describe what he sees, but to do so may spoil the story for you.

Instead, I’ll just say he sees two people from the future. One is dead, the other is covered in the dead person’s blood. And both are naked. The murderer disappears in a slot that appears in the air. And poor Ellis passes out.

When he wakes, he meets more people from the future, one in particular named Pax, and thus begins his true journey. This trip will show him a world where sex, aggression, and some might even say ambition, have been eliminated. After environmental havoc has driven everyone underground, carving out a hollow in the world where it was safe from devastating storms, bioengineering did the rest – creating a humanoid species Ellis can barely recognize.

Pax takes Ellis to Hollow World where he learns that murder is unheard of (even though he just heard/witnessed one) and the world these new humans have built both exhilarates and confounds a person like Ellis*. The new humans are not like him. They don’t have the same needs. Humans have figured out the source of unlimited power. Procreation is not an issue (either the drive or the need). Humans live pretty much forever so the thought of an afterlife (and therefore, a god) just doesn’t make sense. And there doesn’t really seem to be anything in need of conquering or fighting. To Ellis, he sees a hollow world, devoid of desire. This isn’t at all what he thought the future would be like and he’s not sure what to think of it.

But someone does. And he aims to change it in ways that are barbaric by our modern standards, let alone by the morals held by our future brethren. Who this person is and why a recent spate of murders may be linked to that person is a mystery Ellis and Pax rush to discover before all of Hollow World is destroyed.

While the story in Hollow World may seem deceptively simply and some may find Ellis naive in his attitudes towards sexual alternatives and deities, I think Mr. Sullivan has painted very realistic characters. Characters that ring so true, they reminded me of colleagues and neighbors who abhor the very idea of tolerating an open society, let alone living in a world where the very morals they uphold simply wouldn’t make sense. With surprisingly familiar, clear, and poignant (sometimes even funny) language, Mr. Sullivan shows us a world where many of the problems we face today have been eliminated – showing the absurdity of our views. But he also shows us why we hold those views so closely to our hearts.

This book made me laugh. It also made me cry. And in the end, it made me think. I highly recommend Hollow World for anyone looking for a book that brushes on and plays out some political and social issues we face today.

* (For my part, I’m ready for Hollow World. Sign me up on the next trip out.)

Review by N. E. White.

N.E. White, October 2013.

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