Imagine the extent of your world, your existence, was a massive building rising high above a ground obscured from view by thick clouds. Everything you know is either inside this structure, or — more interestingly — hanging off it, and people either live “on the horizontal” in the interior or have “gone vertical” on the outside.
This is the bare-bones premise for Farewell Horizontal, a sci-fi novel by K.W. Jeter (@KWJeter) which was first published in 1989. I believe citing the original date of publishing is important because some of the themes in this interesting novel harken back to that time.
The protagonist, Ny Axxter, has decided to leave a life of mind-numbing labor inside Cylinder, the building, for the freedom and challenge of a life “on the wall.” Forgoing an entry-level position on the horizontal, Ny’s gone freelance as a graffex, a combination graphic artist/computer programmer specializing in creating intricate animated images embedded in the armor of the various warring tribal factions who populate the wall.
But only on one side of the building: the morningside, as it is called. People don’t go on the eveningside, so very little is known about it. At some point in the undetermined past, there was a great War, but the people on and in Cylinder care little about the details of this conflict. Instead, they live in the moment, worrying only about themselves.
As the story opens, Ny is still adjusting to life on the wall. He has automated wires attached to his boots and belt to prevent a fall (vehicles are also equipped with these attachment wires), but that isn’t his biggest problem. Work is scarce, so for Ny every day is a challenge as he tries to make his meager bank account (real-time updates provided via comm-link; make a voice call to your agent, watch as the balance slowly goes down) last until he scores the Big Job that will set him up for life.
A chance encounter with a pair of gas angels gives Ny a video recording to sell to Ask & Receive, the information clearinghouse agency servicing the residents of Cylinder, those on the inside and on the wall. That capital influx keeps him on the wall another day, but Ny needs something better to make a go of it. If he could just get hired by an up-and-coming tribe, a group that will rampage itself into an alliance with one of the big two tribes that rule Cylinder’s known wall. But that’s a dream Ny shares with untold freelancers who have come out on the wall to try their luck:
Vertical was tough. Anybody could fall off the wall. One way or another; either the big step, right down into the cloud barrier below, or . . . back the other way, inwall to the horizontal. Where some fuming widget machine waited for him as well.
— Jeter, K. W. (2011-05-31). Farewell Horizontal (Kindle Locations 226-228). Editions Herodiade. Kindle Edition.
Ny’s big break comes in the form of a job with the Havoc Mass, one of the two main tribes fighting for control of Cylinder’s wall. The Mass is the current number two behind the Grievous Amalgam, which has ruled the building’s upper-most wall for as long as anyone can remember. Much more I can’t say without spoiling it for new readers, but it wouldn’t be a story if everything worked out for Ny, right?
* * * *
I have not read a lot of sci-fi, and must admit I had some difficulty getting into this story. I do not say that as a knock against Mr. Jeter or his writing, but believe it is more indicative of me having trouble breaking free from the horizontal — as it were — and moving out on the wall. The deeper into the story I got, the more involved I became.
There is little to no backstory, the reader is thrown out on the wall from page 1, but that is very much in keeping with the behavior of the people who live in Cylinder. I bought the book because I was fascinated by the concept of a huge building encompassing a society, with the outside serving as the “untamed wilderness” and the inside as some dreary Industrial Revolution nightmare.
There are so many potential themes and subtexts to Farewell Horizontal that I suspect a college-level class could be taught from it. The original publishing date was 1989, at the end of a decade of self-indulgence and consumerism. At the time of its writing, too, the Cold War was still going on and in the Havoc Mass and Grievous Amalgam there were, to me at least, echoes of the standoff between the US and USSR.
Although he performs a very noble deed at one point in the story — a deed that is repaid several times to his great benefit — Ny often isn’t very likable as he is self-centered (not unusual, as noted above) and ambitious to the point of being greedy. The almost mercenary concern exhibited by many characters for earning wealth and status reminded me of Wall Street, the 1987 Oliver Stone movie in which Michael Douglas, portraying ruthless stockbroker Gordon Gekko, famously says “Greed is good.”
Ny exhibits total faith in the world as he knows it to be and rejects what he calls “Looking at your own navel until you fall in. I’ve got lots more important business to take care of.” Jeter, K. W. (2011-05-31). Farewell Horizontal (Kindle Locations 2884-2885). But things are not as they seem, and a pair of characters introduced late in the story help Ny begin to examine his navel for clues:
She seemed unconcerned. “So? That’s what you get for believing everything they told you in the first place. You should’ve been going and finding things out for yourself, about what was true and what wasn’t.”
“About the whole world? Everything inside or outside the building? You can’t do that; nobody can. There’s just too much stuff.”
“Maybe. But you could’ve checked out the parts that concerned you a little better.”
A bleak, formless hole was growing in his gut. “I trusted them . . .”
Felony shook her head, pityingly. “So you die – trusting ’em. That’s the way it goes.”
— Jeter, K. W. (2011-05-31). Farewell Horizontal (Kindle Locations 2738-2743). Editions Herodiade. Kindle Edition.
I found it interesting, too, that the job Ny takes that leads him to these characters revolves around a celebration of history, in this case the career of a warrior. In a way, that break from status quo to look beyond the here and now is like a pebble dropped into a calm pool of water.
Of course, I’m likely completely wrong about the author’s intentions with Farewell Horizontal. (Late note: per an email from Mr. Jeter it appears I have seriously over-thought the book.) Whether I’m right or not, I enjoyed the story and recommend it to anyone looking for a sci-fi tale with depth, action and a thought-provoking concept.
For more about the author and his numerous books, please visit his blog.