The Man Who Melted by Jack Dann

(2007-05-17)

 

Pyr Trade Paperback 2007

Raymond Mantle has lost his wife Josiane. She disappeared during the Great Scream, a psychic phenomenon in which the unconscious minds of millions of people reverberated throughout the world, creating mass hysteria and insanity among those who were consumed in the wave of "Screamers." But he didn't just lose his wife in the Great Scream: he lost his memories of her as well. Mantle travels all over the world in search of Josiane, convinced that she is still alive, but every path he takes leads to a dead end. Between his failed search attempts Mantle the artist creates paintings with subliminal elements imbedded in them with the hope that they will help him to regain the memories he has lost. It will not be through either manhunts or artistic expression that Mantle will find what he seeks, however, but through the two most important people in his life other than his wife: Carl Pfeiffer, an old friend whose strained relationship with Mantle continues only because of the memories he possesses of Josiane; and Joan, a would-be lover willing to do anything for Mantle, even help him find his wife.

In his delightful introduction to Pyr's new edition of Jack Dann's The Man Who Melted, Robert Silverberg marvels at Dann's prescience. First published in 1984, The Man Who Melted describes "the net" and "faxes" in a manner indicating an acute awareness of technological trends at the time. While this foresight is quite impressive, The Man Who Melted's extrapolations are its most modest virtues. Indeed, in many ways the future world Dann has imagined seems generic and even archaic, with moving walkways, flying shuttles and urban superstructures overlaying older cities. If one were to judge The Man Who Melted solely on its technology, the net and faxes notwithstanding, it would seem unimpressive.

However, science fiction comes in many flavors, and The Man Who Melted succeeds because it is science fiction as metaphor, where the world created is not so much a prediction of a technological future but the future of the imagination, a world in which the human condition, not scientific fact, is the starting point from which one departs into realms unmeasured by time. Drawing from, among other elements, Julian Jaynes's popular 1977 work The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Dann fashions a Dickian nightmare world in which humanity's greatest fear is that which lurks within the unconscious mind, not just our own, but those around us as well. It comes as no surprise, then, when in The Man Who Melted Pfeiffer reveals his ambivalence towards his own body by gambling away his organs; or when Joan becomes a member of the Criers, a church whose creed includes the anticipation of a second, even more apocalyptic Great Scream, and whose members seem particularly interested in Mantle's subliminal artwork.

Dann effectively portrays the duality of (un)consciousness in The Man Who Melted through symbolic characterization. Josiane is not just a person, but as an inaccessible memory she is the unconscious counterpart to Mantle's conscious, as emphasized by the fact that she is not only Mantle's wife, but his sister as well. The similarly-named Joan seeks to fulfill this same role in Mantle's life, hence her joining a cult that deifies the unconscious and thus provides a possible means for Mantle to find Josiane, or at least to rediscover his memories of her. As the only person close to Mantle who remembers Josiane, Pfeiffer represents a dark half of the psyche towards which Mantle feels ambivalence, both hating him and loving him for what he knows.

The Man Who Melted at first seems like an adventure novel, opening with a brief action sequence that effectively captures the mentally and socially post-apocalyptic world in which Mantle lives, but very early on it transitions into a more psychological novel, focusing less on Mantle's search for Josiane than on the exploration of the relationships between Mantle and Josiane, Mantle and Pfeiffer, Mantle and Joan, and in this bicameral world, Mantle and Mantle. Rich with metaphoric imagery and gut-wrenching dialogue, it's a novel that likely reads even better upon revisiting, while remaining no less emotionally stirring. As Raymond Mantle discovers, reliving the past can be painful but instructive, and instructive because it is painful, even when the past that one relives is in a future that will never exist except within the mind of the reader. The Man Who Melted is a fitting addition to Pyr's classic reprints catalog, and is recommended reading for both newcomers and old friends alike.

2007 Arthur Bangs

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