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TESTAMENT XXI
1973

Review © 1999 T.M. Wagner.
Book cover art by Frank Kelly Freas.

GUY SNYDER


Perhaps some forgotten books deserve to remain that way. This very early DAW original may well have been daring in its day. Now it merely comes off as pretentious drivel. The story is set in a distant post-apocalyptic future in which the remnants of humanity live underground governed by a ruthless priesthood and an ineffectual king with a mad son for a prince. Into this bleak society comes an astronaut from the past, James Williamson, who has returned to earth after many years in suspended animation voyaging out to Bernard's Star and back. (At the time this was written, Bernard's Star was the first deep space system that we thought had planets.) Williamson now occupies a position of some prestige in this new society — in fact, he was forcibly indoctrinated — yet he finds himself on trial for treason following a missile attack which kills the king and nearly the prince, whose life is spared only because Williamson knocks him out to prevent him martyring himself.

Snyder's tale is not without interest, but it is hamstrung by his dreadful prose, which is full of that stylistic show-offiness so in evidence in popular "New Wave" SF of the time. Principally we're talking about incomplete sentence fragments that pop up in the text like stray snippets from e.e. cummings poems, as well as other similar word tricks, like paragraphs broken up by cryptic snatches of dialogue. Readers of dubious taste might consider this sort of thing to be an artistic way of rendering a mood. More often than not it is unintentionally funny or simply amateurish, and scarcely an elegant way to tell a story. Sometimes this frenetic sort of writing works in spite of itself; Snyder's verbal calisthenics actually lend some tension to a scene involving a missile attack. But most often, the book reads like an all-too-earnest imitation of a Dangerous Visions story, by a writer who didn't quite have the chops to get bought by Ellison himself. So much of Snyder's prose is so thick with portent that even the simplest passages are silly. "The bedroom became silent, quiet silence, with no indication of noise." This, I assume, for readers unacquainted with the definition of silent in the first place. A bit later, here is how Snyder describes to the guffaws of the reader someone having breakfast: "This particular man drank a six-ounce glass of liquid for breakfast this particular day which contained within its liquid depth about three hundred and ten calories in various proteins and fats; that is, the drink."

Beyond bad prose, though, the novel is a narrative and thematic mess that spastically hops back and forth from one character's point of view to another's, from one message (nuclear war is madness!) to another (religious fanaticism is madness!), without really grabbing hold of any one to call its own. Which means that Testament XXI, beyond being a platform for Snyder's preachy yet oddly directionless self-indulgence, lacks anything in the way of a point. On the cover, above the title, reads the blurb "The Book of the Twice Damned." They ain't kiddin'.