Rick Moody's The Four Fingers Of Death might be the most metafictional science fiction book of all time: a science fiction novel about a science fiction novel, wrapped in a shroud of weirdness. It's loopy and weird... and surprisingly tender.
There are spoilers in this review. Be warned!
Four Fingers Of Death starts with a dedication to Kurt Vonnegut, who died while Moody was working on the novel. And the Vonnegut influence looms large, both in the story and in its telling. It's the year 2025, and the NAFTA bloc has fallen into such a perilous decline that we barely have an economy or a functioning society any longer, and we're at the mercy of the much more powerful Sino-Indian economic bloc. A failed writer, Montese Crandall, wins the rights to novelize a trashy science fiction movie called The Four Fingers Of Death, in a chess game. The bulk of Moody's 700-plus page book consists of Crandall's sprawling novelization of this 2025 film, which is a remake of the 1963 classic The Crawling Hand.
Here's The Crawling Hand, in its entirety:
In the 2025 remake, the dead astronaut whose appendage is threatening the world is Jed Richards, the first person on Mars, rather than a Lunar astronaut. And it's a severed arm, rather than a severed hand. It's missing one finger, has a wedding ring and — in the novel's most lurid scene — gropes a young couple sexually until they realize that neither of them is the source of the probing, stroking fingers they feel between their legs.
Montese Crandall, the putative author of the novel, is utterly broken, as broken as this future America is. Not only is Crandall a failure as a writer and as many other things, but his wife is dying of a congenital lung defect, and a total lung transplant appears to be a failure. Crandall has decided that all stories should be only five or six words, and he's perfected the art of boiling huge, monumental tales down to these ultra-short sentences. This is Crandall's proudest achievement, the micro-micro story.
And yet, The Four Fingers Of Death is massive and wordy, with single paragraphs that sometimes span three pages at a time. It's as if Crandall's grief has unleashed a flood of words from him, and he can't hold it back at all. The contrast between Crandall's professed love of the six-word story and his decision to write possibly the longest science fiction movie novelization of all time reminds me of Moody's explanation for why he wrote a "microserialized" story on Twitter last year:
I think my contempt for Twitter is what inspired it, initially. In general, I think the way to describe the world is to get longer not shorter. Twitter, by virtue of brevity, abdicates any responsibility where real complexity is concerned, because it forbids length. This seemed to me like a challenge, then: how to get complex in a medium that is anathema to complexity and rigor.
And he more or less proves this point, in Four Fingers Of Death, by having such rich, complex descriptions of the experience of landing on Mars, the politics of the Mars mission, and then the fallout from its total failure, including the horrible aftermath back on Earth. You get the sense that Crandall, in his grief, has taken this B-movie with a fairly simple plot about an arm killing people, and turned into this baroque epic about human vanity and doomed love.
At times, the novel's endless digressions and weird excursions get a bit taxing, but it does add up to something compelling in the end. Like Vonnegut, Moody packs his novel with weird New Age pseudo-cults, odd philosophies, bizarre science experiments and one-off characters who chatter at you for a dozen pages before getting strangled by a severed arm with four fingers.
The actual novelization of the Four Fingers Of Death movie divides into two "books," the first of which apparently isn't based on the film at all, but is a sort of prologue. In Book One, we follow the astronauts on their doomed Mars mission, spending months cooped up in three space capsules. The astronauts' sanity unravels and their inhibitions fall away, the further they get from space - and meanwhile, we get our first inklings that the Mars mission has a secret military purpose, the exploitation of an unbelievably deadly flesh-eating bacteria lurking under the Martian ice. The "journey to Mars" sequences reminded me of Tom Stoppard's Jumpers as well as Toby Litt's Journey Into Space in their exploration of extraterrestrial social unraveling. ("There is no natural order, if the natural order means the way things go on the home planet.... The natural order is the wild, violent, unpredictable world of space, with its wormholes, dark matter, black holes, space-time curvature, and in this natural order, human ethics, puny human ethics, mean nothing.")
There are some lovely space-journey passages, like this one:
I scanned the heavens for radio wave emissions that were otherwise unexplainable, by virtue of repetition — the indications of so-called intelligent life in the great nothingness, the nothingness that I know better than you, because every day, though days mean nothing to me now, in this expanse that is the general-relativity equivalent of forty days and forty nights, I had experienced the nothingness, and I'd watched as the little red star in the distant sky got closer, until now you could almost see the polar caps on it, and you could see its dust storms, which were going to blind us every time we went out in them, perhaps asphyxiating us; you could see all of this, especially if you used the telescopic apparatus that we had to enhance the picture for you. And so I knew that I came from nowhere, that I was heading nowhere, that my life was no more, in the scheme of things, than the life of a match light snuffed out in a big wind. I was an insignificance between the orbit of the planet Mars, that elliptical orbit, and the orbit of the planet Earth. I was nothing, and soon I would be gone.
The narrator of the first book is Colonel Jed Richards, a previously straight astronaut who falls in love with his shipmate, Captain Jim Rose (leading to a truly vivid zero-gravity sex scene), and their love is the first of several in the book to fall victim to the encroaching horror of disease and lust for power that gives rise to the crawling arm of doom. And just as everybody, once on Mars, starts going full-on insane and devolving into vicious, anti-social animals, so does the crawling arm, once back on Earth, represent something animalistic and devoid of any thoughts other than muscle memory. It is, as one character says, as if consciousness has just been a brief flicker in the middle of ages of instinct.
Almost every love affair in the book feels destined for destruction, and grief. Once back on Earth, in book two, the severed arm cuts a swathe through a host of tragic love stories. (One of which involves a chimpanzee who's been uplifted to genius-level intelligence via stem cells.) It's as if his wife's failed lung transplant has left Montese Crandall with a lot to say about unruly body parts, love and death.
It's really only when you get to the end that you can see what this has all been about, and the sometimes rambling epic feels utterly worthwhile, in the final analysis. It's not just a fitting tribute to Vonnegut, but a great love letter to science fiction. And even though death and disease may put an end to love, Moody leaves us feeling as though love will have the last word.
The Four Fingers Of Death comes out July 28.