SF's history is sprinkled with forgotten gems, and The Man Who Melted is one of them. Jack Dann first rose to prominence as an editor, compiling several anthologies, many with Gardner Dozois, beginning in the early 1970's. The Man Who Melted was only his third novel. It didn't escape appreciation at the time. It was a Nebula finalist the year Neuromancer won. But where the SF reading public was concerned, it was a fairly obscure tome then as now. I remember, back in 1985 when the Nebula finalists were announced, having to special-order a copy of the Bluejay Books hardcover to review for my fanzine. Trust me, in the days before the internets and Amazon, special-ordering a book from its publisher was a grade-A pain in the ass. It wasn't until Spectra did a mass market reprint that you could actually walk into a bookstore and find The Man Who Melted sitting on a shelf, however fleetingly.
Occasionally, I do a smart thing in life, and one of them was never getting rid of that hardcover. (I put enough effort into getting it!) Pyr reissued the novel in 2007, but it didn't sell then either. I can only say this little rarity deserves a chance to find a new audience. It isn't for everyone. It challenges you, not through any convolutions of plot but by laying our most private places bare. It's an often painful Ballardian trek into the "dark spaces" we conceal from ourselves and those we love. It's unlike anything else in the genre. Adventurous readers hankering for incisive, character-driven literary SF will find much to admire and reflect upon.
The Man Who Melted is all about the secrets that hide beneath surfaces. It's about the way people deal with the collapse of everything that has defined their lives, and more specifically, the lies they tell themselves to avoid confronting terrible truths. Its future is one that has not fully recovered from the Great Scream, a global outbreak of collective madness that saw millions of rioting lunatics — normal people who, as one character puts it, could not adjust to a "dysfunctional society" — come within a hair's breadth of destroying all society. But how can society be dysfunctional unless its people are dysfunctional first? The novel paints a future in which the inability of the individual to reconcile himself with society has resulted in an epidemic of schizophrenia that taps into the collective unconscious. The ironic result is that emotionally isolated individuals finally come together through insanity and mob violence.
Raymond Mantle lost his wife (also his sister) Josiane in the Great Scream. Now making a living in the south of France as a painter who specializes in subliminal images, he is desperate to find her — dead or alive — in order to recover his own lost memories surrounding the event. It is not so much obsessive love for Josiane that drives him; indeed he has a new lover, Joan. It's more a burning need to fill in his own gaps, so to speak. But there may be secrets motivating him that he is not willing to admit even to himself.
Screamer attacks are still occurring, and people have found different distractions — to varying degrees of extremism, like high-stakes gambling where your organs are your ante — to help them make light of the madness of life. Others have turned to new and old religions. While a charismatic mahdi has risen in the Muslim world, some in the west have joined the Crying Church. It is to them Mantle goes to find a possible link to Josiane, through their ghoulish practice of hooking in to the minds of dying Screamers. As Nietzsche once wrote, if you stare too long into the abyss, it will stare into you. Mantle finds himself exposed to the "dark spaces", a terrifying realm of the collective unconscious haunted by the minds of the dead. His mind also becomes receptive to the curcuit fantome, the telepathic ability to connect with the minds of others he knows — Joan, an old friend named Pfeiffer who seems to have a whole pandora's box of secrets all his own — without artificially hooking in. What he learns involves a twisted web of deception upon deception that could link him to an imminent return of the Great Scream, more powerfully destructive than ever.
By all rights, Mantle and the other characters shouldn't be likable. They seem for all the world lost in self-absorption. But Dann renders them sympathetic because their journeys involve coming to terms with how much they are responsible for what's befallen them, and whether they will be able to break down the barriers they have built to shield themselves — from intimacy, duty, and truth — and connect with each other. In the end the novel's themes do come around to those old standbys, redemption and forgiveness. But what these characters must endure to get to that point is more harrowing than anything you're likely to find in most stories that purport to illuminate the "dark night of the soul". Dann ratchets up dramatic tension to an almost unbearable degree as the story approaches its apocalyptic climax. The book may leave you feeling drained. But if so, then it's done its job. Often the only way to overcome pain is when it's shared.