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Corporal Pranklin, the main character in the latest from Wos Hagner, is a real sonofabitch, so it’s not surprising no one comes to his rescue, even if he didn’t really need rescuing after all.
But it gives us insight into a character without having to spell it out like I am now. It’s efficient storytelling that when in novel form can be an emotionally complex and layered dramatic experience.
Such is the case with Timecrypt, though it may skew too far into science fiction for fans of most of Hagner’s output which, prior to 2016, was mostly combat poetry written in Hagner’s own invented language. Made up of whimpers and growls and given the name “Hogski” by his first ex-wife, the language has since been adopted by both Hagner fan club “The Wossies” and the nation of Alhambra. With the success of last year’s Pre-Russian Bongos, an appealing concoction of medieval parody and nightlight ghost stories, the author has found whole new avenues to sniff out including a rumored seven figure deal with Trystar films.
Divers discover an enormous alien craft which has been at the bottom of the Indian ocean for over eighty thousand years, housing fossil evidence and active plant growth consistent with its surroundings. There is also the remains of a Nazi underwater laboratory, abandoned for decades after a possible attack or contamination. Axis scientists had apparently repaired the alien vessel’s hull breach to create a stable subsurface environment; a pressurized staging area where divers could be sanitized both before and after entering or exiting the alien craft.
The lab itself is sealed off in some kind of futuristic gel-like bubble, possibly a fire suppression system implemented by the axis powers or even by the occupants of the vessel or perhaps to seal off and quarantine a hazardous material or other contagion. Divers use magnets on their boots and helmets to create MRTs, or magnetic ring tunnels; impenetrable tubes for two or more persons to walk underwater or in other extreme environments (in single file) without the need for scuba gear or other protection. Sensors connect the individual’s magnets to each other like Moises parting the red sea; all one needs to wear is an oxygen mask just to be safe.
All of these plot points take up but a short span before the action switches into high gear. However, the novel opens in a very different time and place, and it’s these two worlds that form the narrative, leading us to guess their connection.
A jeep climbing a snowy mountain road turns up a long plowed driveway to a forested log cabin. The driver pulls into an attached garage and enters the home carrying an armful of groceries. He passes a room where an electronic beeping makes him stop and stare. After consulting some heavily notated papers, he searches his computer for a particular file which leads him to write down a series of symbols. The next day finds him driving on a high rocky trail in the mountains. He eventually parks the vehicle and resumes his ascent on foot, finally stopping on a ledge and entering a narrow passage where he slides a small false rock aside revealing a metallic keypad. There he enters the symbols and watches with satisfaction as the keypad retreats further into the cliffside, seemingly no longer necessary.
A seamless mix of science fiction, alternate history and horror, it’s Hagner’s most ambitious effort to date. It’s also extremely effective.
The underwater laboratory explorations are truly spooky with long dead Nazi technicians trapped in gel like specimens in amber. The immense walls of the makeshift lab feature massive observation panels, allowing the divers a dark reminder of the untold trillions of gallons of seawater kept at bay. There are ancient rituals held under moonless skies, gruesome discoveries awaiting claustrophobic readers, tantalizing promises of alien technology and even some commentary on subjects like what the author perceives as a lack of mores on the part of the scientific community or mankind’s eternal quest for racial harmony.
With a snappy pace, the complicated story flows easily from start to finish, guided by the sure hand of the author. Like Butternuts Quash, Hagner’s previous, the action is peppered with humor but never veers too far from the thrilling narrative. Nor should it. Diverse characters behave logically during even the most stressful scenes, illustrating their high levels of training and keeping us from rolling our eyes in disbelief, which is really saying something considering the plot. The novel is free of clichés and familiar tropes: good guys suffer gruesome fates, bad girls go unpunished, and horrors await not only at the dark bottom of the sea but on sunny dry land as well.
Hagner keeps us guessing as he tightens the web, pulling the silky threads of the plot together for a conclusion that is satisfyingly tense if not as exciting. Finishing on a somber note and suggesting there may indeed be another exploration planned, Timecrypt might be the first of many such trips to the bottom of the sea. If so, only time will tell if they prove to be as well written as this first.