The human experience is a visual one. While each of the five senses has its function and importance, we rely primarily on our eyes to navigate the world. Sighted people take this fact for granted – even the verb “to see” means “to understand.” Inability to see is considered (by the sighted) to be a devastating plight, the resulting world of darkness unbearable.
But is it? In his latest book, Dark Universe, Daniel Galouye takes the horror out of blindness, putting us in the viewpoint (or more accurately, the “hearpoint”) of a post-apocalyptic civilization of humans that has lived for generations underground without any sources of light. While their eyes may technically still work, they are useless. Hearing and smell have become the operative senses for interpreting the world. Over the generations, even the memory of sight has become forgotten, and many inhabitants of this subterranean world spend their lives with their eyes tightly shut, their hair grown long over their face. Yet they live, even thrive, in a beauty that goes beyond the visual.
It is a fascinating set-up, and it’s rendered beautifully by Galouye. The universe of caves, the communities of the blind, the strange animals and plants that surround them, they are doubly weird, portrayed as they are vividly and effectively without a single visual cue. But these are just backdrop to the real story, that of the young man, Jared, who is groping for the truth of his world.
For in the land of eternal night, Light and Darkness have lost their physical meaning. They are now abstract religious concepts. As Jared explores the full compass of the underground, he starts to wonder if light, and its dark counterpart, might be something real. The evidence mounts in the form of unanswered questions: How does another underground tribe, the Zivvers, seem to sense with a keenness beyond hearing, detecting the very heat of objects? What does it mean when the gnarled old priest stimulates another’s eyes in the ritual of Excitation of the Optic Nerve, causing double rings of soundless noise to appear in one’s conception? And just what are these Monsters that have begun to raid the caves, kidnapping members of the tribes, waving wands that project cones of dazzling silent sense?
Dark Universe is a detective story, but not in the usual sense. The reader already knows the answer to the mystery; the unknown element is how Jared will deduce the truth about his world, the invaders, and his situation. Galouye has profound things to say about the nature of religion, which in this book is a literal search for enlightenment. The questions are all familiar to us: Where do we go when we die? Is there Truth behind holy writ and sacred artifacts? When is it safe to abandon superstition?
Then there are the even more fundamental questions. Is it a handicap to be blind? Is vision even a desirable ability for one raised in, even deft in, blindness? What does one give up when one loses one’s “disability”? Galouye presents and attempts to answer these questions without being didactic, for he does it all in metaphor, couched in the trappings of a science fiction novel.
And it’s a crackingly exciting novel, at that. Beyond the book’s philosophical underpinnings, Dark Universe is a gripping adventure, with all the derring-do, narrow scrapes, and romance of a Burroughsian Pellucidar tale. As a result, Galouye delivers his philosophy in a far sweeter pill than, say, Heinlein in his latest book. Galouye’s first motivation is to entertain, and he succeeds at this task admirably. Four and a half stars.