The moment I saw David Zindell’s Neverness sitting there on the library shelf, my curiosity was piqued. The cover art by Don Dixon — a silvery multi-winged ship rocketing into a richly colored sky over a vast, golden city nestled at the foot of a mountain — fired my high school imagination. And the book’s title was poetic and mysterious, telling me nothing about the storyline in the most tantalizing way.
The book’s size — the paperback weighs in at 552 pages — was intimidating, but I checked it out anyway. And soon realized that I was, indeed, in way over my head.
Neverness was filled with fascinating ideas and imagery that were quite unlike anything I’d read before in sci-fi. (Granted, I was only 16 or 17 at the time.) Zindell’s prose — much like his novel’s artwork — could be vivid, beautiful, and even stirring. But his storytelling was both dense and meandering, with page after page filled with long, winding passages and numerous segues that were obviously the product of a great imagination, but were also in dire need of an editor’s pen.
Zindell’s novel — which I did eventually finish — left me frustrated and exhausted after that first read so long ago. But fascinated, as well. So fascinated, in fact, that several years later, I bought a copy of Neverness at a used bookstore whilst a starving college student. Jump ahead a few decades, and I finally bought copies of Neverness’ sequels, the Requiem for Homo Sapiens trilogy. It wasn’t until 2022, however, that I finally decided to complete Zindell’s space opera, nearly three decades after that fateful library encounter.
And just like before, I found Zindell’s writing frustrating and exhausting, and yet, filled with moments that fired my imagination quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read, sci-fi or otherwise.
The following contains numerous spoilers for David Zindell’s Neverness and its sequels.
Zindell’s sci-fi novels — Neverness (1988), The Broken God (1993), The Wild (1995), and War in Heaven (1998) — are set tens of thousands of years in the future, long after humanity has spread throughout the galaxy to occupy countless worlds. While various alien races exist, like the Fravashi, Scutari, and the Friends of Man, humanity is the galaxy’s dominant species, and the pinnacle of humanity is found in the Order of Mystic Mathematicians and Other Seekers of the Ineffable Flame.
A quasi-monastic society based in the exotic city of Neverness on the planet Icefall, the Order consists of over a hundred distinct disciplines with fanciful names like akashics, cantors, cetics, horologes, eschatologists, remembrancers, and scryers — each of which is dedicated to a particular area of study. Cantors are devoted to math, cetics seek to master the human body, eschatologists divine the universe’s fate, remembrancers try to recall ancient memories, scryers peer into future, and so on. (Many of the disciplines mentioned are never fully defined, which adds to the fantastical-ness of Zindell’s universe.)
At the Order’s pinnacle are the pilots, who traverse the galaxy in an endless quest for knowledge. In order to cover such vast distances, pilots send their ships hurtling through the manifold, a hyperspace-like dimension where they employ complex and abstract mathematics to jump between the stars. Prior to becoming a novelist, Zindell earned a degree in mathematics, and his books are filled with math-inspired lingo. I barely survived my freshman calculus class, so I have no idea how legit terms like “Lavi space,” “probability mapping,” “klein tube,” and “Gallivare inversion” really are, but they sound cool — just like the sort of math that would be invented hundreds of centuries in the future.
But even the Order, with all of its knowledge, pales in comparison to the various godlike entities who rule vast parts of the galaxy. Some of them are AI constructs who flourished after escaping their human minders while others were humans who used to advanced technology to transcend the flesh and become divine. (I didn’t realize it at the time, but Neverness was my first exposure to the concepts of transhumanism.) With names like the Solid State Entity, the Silicon God, Ede the God, Iamme, and the April Colonial Intelligence, these massive entities — think V’ger from Star Trek: The Motion Picture — are not to be trifled with as they war amongst themselves for survival and preeminence, leaving entire solar systems in ruins.
These godlike “Jupiter brains” aren’t the only existential threat facing humanity, however. The galaxy’s stars are inexplicably exploding, creating a barren and deadly region of space called the Vild that’s spreading at an alarming rate. Unless the Vild’s growth can be stopped, and the stars kept from going supernova, countless worlds will be destroyed, including Icefall. And with it, the Order.
Against this epic, galaxy-spanning backdrop unfolds the story of two men, a father and son named Mallory and Danlo Ringess. Neverness is essentially Mallory’s autobiography in which he recounts his adventures as a headstrong pilot determined to make a name for himself in the Order. This ambition leads him on a foolish quest to confront the Solid State Entity and find the Elder Eddas, a legendary message left behind by the Ieldra, the alien race that seeded all other life in the galaxy before disappearing ages ago. The Elder Eddas are said to contain the secrets of life itself, instructions that can help humanity achieve godhood.
Mallory’s quest, however, also leads to him falling in love with a woman who turns out to be his own sister; becoming genetically modified to live amongst a Neanderthal-like offshoot of humanity called the Alaloi whose DNA might contain the Ieldra’s secrets; dying and being reborn on the ocean world of Agathange; leading a rebellion against the Order and its leader, the enigmatic Timekeeper; and eventually leaving Neverness to become a god himself.
Neverness’ sequels — also narrated by the now-divine Mallory — follow his son Danlo, who was born and raised amongst the Alaloi. After his adoptive tribe is decimated by a mysterious plague, Danlo resolves to find a cure by making the perilous journey across Icefall to Neverness, joining the Order, and becoming a pilot like his father. And like his father, Danlo’s quest becomes quite convoluted, too. He falls in love; inadvertently starts a religion devoted to his father; is betrayed by his best friend and sent into exile; explores the Vild; is trapped and tested by the Solid State Entity; lands in the middle of a religious war fought between factions of the Cybernetic Universal Church, humanity’s greatest religion; leads a schism of his own within the Order; and attempts to discover his father’s final fate.
As you can see, a lot happens in Zindell’s novels, with enough ideas for another trilogy or two. Which means that his books can get really exhausting, especially when Mallory or Danlo embark on yet another sidequest or find themselves in yet another bizarre set of circumstances (e.g., Mallory’s death and resurrection, Danlo’s religious experiences) — which Zindell invests with just as much zeal and detail as any central storyline.
This level of detail leads to striking prose (more on that later). It also means that Zindell’s many ideas, fascinating as they might be, can become a slog as you wait for him to return to what should be the primary storyline, be it Mallory’s quest for the Elder Eddas or Danlo’s efforts to find a cure for the Alaloi’s plague. Zindell often seems more interested in his characters’ sidequests than any central storyline. As a result, the Requiem For Homo Sapiens trilogy fails to bring several significant plot threads, like the Silicon God’s malevolent predations, to any satisfying resolution. (To his credit, Zindell admits as much in this 2001 Interzone interview.)
It’s almost ridiculous at times, the lengths to which the Ringesses go, or are made to go by Zindell’s scope and ambition. This is particularly true with the Requiem for Homo Sapiens trilogy and the character of Danlo Ringess.
Imagine the most guile-less, noble, and idealistic character. Chances are, they’ll still pale in comparison to Danlo. With his strict vow to never harm another living being, preternatural mathematical abilities, physical appearance (Zindell often comments on Danlo’s gorgeous hair and striking blue eyes), and unending sense of wide-eyed wonder and devotion to all things beautiful and glorious, Danlo is practically perfect in every possible way. If he has a flaw, it seems to be that he loves everything and everyone just a little too much.
As a noble savage, his “pure” Alaloi heritage and love for the natural order clashes with the Order’s rigid close-mindedness, the decadence of “civilized” societies like Neverness, and the fallibility of others, especially his best friend, a tortured-yet-brilliant young man named Hanuman li Tosh. And if all that weren’t enough, Danlo becomes a messianic figure called the “Lightbringer” at one point and even unlocks some advanced evolutionary traits that basically make him superhuman.
Frankly, this hero wish fulfillment becomes too much, too quickly. I can’t even begin to count how many times I rolled my eyes whenever Danlo experienced yet another moment of enlightenment concerning the nature of the universe, had a mystical vision of events happening halfway across the galaxy, or caused a crisis due to his idealism and “uncivilized” naïveté. One hilarious example occurs early in The Broken God, when Danlo eats his own booger because the Alaloi don’t waste anything that can be digested. This leads to a long discussion with Danlo’s alien mentor about “civilized” rituals and propriety concerning human orifices. All human orifices. And also alien genitalia. On the one hand, Zindell’s commitment to exploring Danlo’s outsider status is kind of impressive. On the other hand, ewww.
Ironically, Zindell’s willing to dismiss Danlo’s idealism when it matters most. Throughout the Requiem trilogy, Danlo is devoted to “ahimsa,” a pacifist ideology that states one must never kill or hurt another being, not even in one’s thoughts. This causes constant problems for Danlo, who’s drawn into conflicts throughout the galaxy and forced to make hard ethical decisions. While his devotion can be naïve and self-righteous at times, it’s a defining aspect of his character… until the final pages of War in Heaven. There, Danlo is forced to kill Hanuman to prevent his old friend from enacting an insane plan to convert the universe into a vast virtual reality, thus “freeing” all living things from the pain and suffering of existence.
While you’d think that killing his former best friend would present a significant moral quandary for the idealistic Danlo, it’s surprisingly easy to abandon ahimsa at this most critical moment. Of course, Zindell stacks the deck in Danlo’s favor by making Hanuman do some truly egregious things (e.g., tormenting Danlo with a virtual recreation of his dead son), but after the deed’s done, Danlo seems surprisingly at peace. Even Danlo’s alien mentor, who taught him ahimsa in the first place, brushes away any possibility of wrongdoing; he explains that even rules like ahimsa exist to be broken and furthermore, Hanuman’s death was necessary because of Danlo’s greatness and importance. Danlo’s own justification essentially boils down to Hanuman’s murder being necessary for the universe to achieve its final destiny. It’s an interesting take on utilitarianism that undermines the series’ many high-minded and passionately written ruminations on life’s purpose and humanity’s potential.
As for Mallory Ringess, he’s just as idealistic as his son, especially concerning the Order’s mission. But he’s also headstrong and arrogant, and has a deeply conflicted relationship with the man who’s eventually revealed to be his father. These flaws and struggles makes him a much more interesting and vibrant character, and thus, makes Neverness the strongest of Zindell’s sci-fi novels. (Also, Mallory never eats his own boogers.)
And then there’s the sex. To be fair, Zindell’s books aren’t filled with sexual encounters, but when they do happen… hoo boy. Both Mallory and Danlo fall deeply and madly in love; Mallory falls for an eyeless scryer named Katherine while Danlo becomes infatuated with a courtesan named Tamara Ten-Ashtoreth. The scenes in which the Ringesses “swive” their respective lovers are so explicit and detailed as to become silly.
If I’m being gracious, mere titillation doesn’t seem to be Zindell’s intent. Rather, he’s trying to paint a very detailed picture of just how differently humans might view sex in the distant future. But then you read about Danlo’s fascination with the shape of Tamara’s anus, or the many sentences spent explaining just how much she enjoys being naked, and it feels sophomoric. Which brings us to Neverness’ orgy scene.
While living amongst the Alaloi, Mallory and his comrades take part in a native celebration in order to collect as many samples as possible (since the Elder Eddas are supposedly located in the Alaloi’s DNA). This leads lots of “swiving” and climaxes (sorry, not sorry) in a scene where Mallory’s friend Bardo, a man of extreme sexual prowess, is dismayed to discover that he’s in a seemingly permanent state of arousal. Again, was Zindell’s goal to compare “civilized” and “uncivilized” societies, and their approaches to love and sex? Or did he just think it’d be funny to write a scene where a guy has a long-lasting boner?
So yes, there’s quite a bit of excess in Neverness and its sequels, and often to their detriment. But that same excess also gives rise to some of the most exhilarating, imaginative, and fascinating prose I’ve ever read in a genre title, and explains why Zindell’s writing has stayed with me for nearly thirty years.
Because I’m a space nerd, my favorite passages in Zindell’s books are those describing pilot journeys between the stars and through the labyrinthine manifold, journeys made possible by the advanced technology of their beautiful diamond-hulled lightships (which possess names like Cardinal Virtue, Immanent Carnation, and Vorpal Blade) and their arcane, elaborate mathematics.
Here’s how Mallory describes the experience of piloting a lightship as he begins his fateful journey to the Solid State Entity:
I made my way along the glittering, spiral Sagittarius arm of the galaxy. I progressed outward in good style across the lens of the Milky Way, though there were of course times when I was forced to loop back across my pathways, kleining coreward towards the hellishly bright and dense stars of the central bulge. This part of my journey, I knew, would be easy. I followed pathways that the Tycho and Jemmu Flowtow had long ago discovered. To fall from a red giant such as Gloriana Luz to one of the hot blue stars of the Lesser Morbio is easy when the mapping of the respective point-sources in the neighborhood of the two stars has long ago been made (and proved to be simply connected.) So easy is it that the cantors have given these known pathways a special name: They call them the stellar fallaways to distinguish them from that part of the manifold that is unmapped, and quite often, unmappable. Thus, to be precise I should say I began my journey through the fallaways, fenestering at speed from window to window, from star to star in my hurry to reach the Solid State Entity.
I spent most of this time floating freely within the darkened pit of my ship. For some fearful pilots — such as the failed ones who guide the deep ships and long ships that ply the trade routes of the fallaways — the ship’s pit can be more of a trap than a sanctuary in which to experience the profounder states of mind; for them the pit is a black metallic coffin. For me, the pit of the Immanent Carnation was like a gentle, comfortable heaume surrounding my whole body rather than just my head.
(Indeed, in the Tycho’s time the ship’s computer fit tightly over the pilot’s head and extruded protein filaments into the brain, in the manner of the ancient heaumes.) As I journeyed through the near stars, the neurologics woven into the black shell of the pit holographically modeled my brain and body functions. And more, the information-rich logics infused images, impulses and symbols directly into my brain. Thus I passed the stars of the Nashira Triple, and I faced my ship’s computer and “talked” to it. And it talked to me. I listened to the soundless roar of the ship’s spacetime devouring engines opening windows to manifold, and I watched the fire of the more distant nebulae as I proved my theorems — all through the filter of the computer and its neurologics.
However, the manifold is fraught with danger, as Mallory discovers when his calculations go awry:
With the number storm carrying me along toward the moment of proof, I passed into dreamtime. There was an indescribable perception of orderedness; there was beauty and terror as the manifold opened before me. The number storm intensified, nearly blinding me with the white light of dreamtime. I wondered, as I had always wondered, at the nature of dreamtime and that wonderful mental space we call the manifold. Was the manifold truly deep reality, the reality ordering the shape and texture of the outer universe? Some cantors believe this (my mother is not one of these), and it is their faith that when mathematics is perfectly realized, the universe will be perfectly understood. But they are pure mathematicians, and we pilots are not. In the manifold there is no perfection. There is much that we do not understand.
I was deep in dreamtime when I realized I did not understand the type of the decision tree branching all about me. I was close to my proof — I needed only to show that the Lavi set was embedded in an invariant space. But I could not show this, and I did not know why. It should have been a simple thing to do. When the tree divided and split into a million and then a billion different branches, I began to sweat.
Dreamtime intensified into that terrifying, nameless state I thought of as “nightmaretime.” Suddenly I proved that the Lavi set could not be embedded in an invariant space. My heart was beating like a panicked child’s. With my panic came despair, and my proof array began to crash, to shatter like ice crystals ground beneath a leather boot. There would be no proof, I knew. There would be no mapping to a point-exit in real space. I would not fall out around any star, near or distant. I was not merely lost in a hideous decision tree, I had stumbled — or been propelled — into an infinite tree. Even in the worst of decision trees, there is a probability that a pilot will find the correct branch among the billion billion branchings. But in an infinite tree, there is no correct branch, no branch leading to an exit into the warm sunlight of realspace. The tree spreads outward, one branch growing into another, and into ten centillion others, on and on, dividing and redividing into infinity. From an infinite tree there is no escape. My neurons would gradually disassociate, synapse by synapse, leaving me to play with my toes as a child plays with the beads of an abacus. I would be insane, blinded by the number storm, frozen in forever dreamtime, forever drooling into infinity. Or, if I turned away from my ship-computer and let my mind go quiet, there would be nothing, nothing but an empty black coffin carrying me into the hell of the manifold.
I knew then that I had lied to myself utterly. I was not ready to chance everything to experience a goddess; I was not ready to face death at all. I remembered I had chosen my fate freely. I could only blame myself and my foolish pride. My last thought, as a scream formed up on my lips and I began hearing voices inside me, was: Why is man born to self-deception and lies?
Being a space opera, there are, of course, space battles in the pages of Zindell’s books. They are, however, a far cry from the laser-filled dogfights of Star Wars. Rather, pilots attempt to outsmart each other and use the manifold to their advantage:
The battle that Bardo had fought with Marrim Masala had been much like any contest between two lightships: nerve-shattering, fierce and quick. Like two swords flashing in the night, Bardo’s and Marrim’s ships slipped in and out of the manifold seeking an advantageous probability mapping. Bardo, the more mathematical and cunning of the two pilots, in some hundred and ten seconds of these lightning maneuvers, had finally prevailed. He predicted which point-exit the Golden Rhomb would take into real-space, and he made a forced mapping. And then the Sword of Shiva swept forwards and sliced open a window into the manifold. And the Golden Rhomb instantly fell through this window into the hotstar’s terrible fires.
However, there are other passages that don’t deal with travel through the manifold but are no less fascinating. As Mallory travels to the Solid State Entity, he begins the odd task of learning to read an ancient book of poetry given to him by the Timekeeper, and finds the process arduous:
I spent most of my passage in the more or less normally alert state of shiptime examining the book that the Timekeeper had given me. I learned to read. It was a painful thing to do. The ancient way of representing the sounds of speech by individual letters was an inefficient means of encoding information. Barbaric. I learned the cursive glyphs of that array known as the alphabet, and I learned how to string them together linearly — linearly! — to form words. Since the book contained poems written in several of the ancient Old Earth languages, I had to learn these languages as well. This, of course, was the easier of my tasks since I could infuse and superscribe the language and memory centers of my brain directly from the computer’s store of arcana.
But also supremely rewarding:
When I had learned to scan the lines of letters printed across — and, sometimes, down — the old, fibrous pages of yellowed paper, learned so well that I had no need to sound out the individual letters in the inner ear of my brain but could perceive the units of meaning word by word, I found to my astonishment that this thing called reading was pleasurable. There was pleasure in handling the cracked leather of the cover, pleasure too in the quiet stimulation of my eyes with black symbols representing words as they had once been spoken. How simple a thing reading really was. How strange I would have appeared to another pilot, had she been able to watch me reading. There, in the illuminated pit of my ship, I floated and held the Timekeeper’s book in front of me as I did nothing more than move my eyes from left to right, left to right, down the time-stiffened pages of the book.
But it was the poems themselves that gave me the greatest pleasure. It was wonderful to discover that the ancients, in all their stupendous ignorance of the immensity of spacetime and the endless profusion of life that fills our universe, knew as much of the great secret of life — or as little — as we know now. Though their perceptions were simple and bold, it seemed to me they often perceived more deeply that part of reality directly apprehensible to a mere man. Their poems were like hard diamonds crudely cut from some primal stone; their poems were full of a pounding, sensual, barbaric music; their poems sent the blood rushing and made the eyes focus on vistas of untouchable stars and cold, distant, northern seas. There were short, clever poems designed to capture one of life’s brief and sad (but beautiful) moments as one might capture and preserve a butterfly in glacier ice. There were poems that ran on for pages, recounting man’s lust for killing and blood and those pure and timeless moments of heroism when one feels that the life inside must be rejoined with the greater life without.
Finally, one of the most striking images in all of Zindell’s space opera occurs during one of its darkest moments, as Danlo and Tamara keep watch over their dying son Jonathan:
Danlo drew forth his flute and played a song for Jonathan. And when he had finished, Jonathan asked for another, and he lay all curled up listening to the music that filled the room like lovely, floating pearls. With the rising of the sun, the white curtains over the window began to glow with a deep light. Tamara stared at this reddish glow as if she dreaded the breaking of the new day. And then, while Danlo breathed into his flute and counted his heartbeats, she sighed and closed her eyes, staring inside herself. She seemed to be looking for a different kind of light that might give her strength to face the coming ordeal.
Because Zindell’s scope is so epic, it often seems to be lacking in small, mundane, and intrinsically human moments. Or rather, any such human moments are often written with the same sort of epic language that Zindell uses to describe journeys through the manifold, galaxy-spanning wars and religious schisms, and metaphysical epiphanies. Which makes the above passage about a mother’s “simple” grief and exhaustion all the more unique and striking, even as it employs some flowery language of its own.
In addition to his stirring prose, Zindell uses a tactic employed by Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun and uses obscure and archaic words to make his fictional world all the more exotic and fantastical. Real-world terms like “hallning,” “hibakusha,” “kamelaika,” and “swive” intermingle with Zindell’s own apparent creations (e.g., “cark,” “sliddery”). Even intentional misspellings like “Kristian” and “hokkee” add to this far-future exotic-ness, as do the aforementioned mathematical concepts (e.g., “Lavi space,” “Gallivare inversion”) and the names of the Order’s numerous disciplines.
This aspect of Zindell’s writing kept me coming back to his books even as I grew overwhelmed and exhausted by his meandering narratives. I often kept reading, not because I was expecting a satisfying conclusion to a particular storyline, but rather, because I was looking forward to yet another fanciful and evocative passage. (Of course, should you ever choose to read Zindell’s novels, your mileage may vary.)
David Zindell received some high praise upon arriving on the genre scene. Gene Wolfe called him “one of the finest talents to appear since Kim Stanley Robinson and William Gibson,” Orson Scott Card deemed Neverness “excellent hard science fiction,” and Edward Bryant saw fit to compare Zindell to the likes of Frank Herbert and Ursula K. Le Guin. A Booklist review even went so far as to say that Neverness had “the power to renew one’s faith in the genre.”
Following the Requiem for Homo Sapiens trilogy, Zindell wrote a four-book fantasy series in the early-to-mid ’00s called the Ea Cycle, another fiction novel titled The Idiot Gods (2017), and a personal memoir titled Splendor (2015). (A “contempoary love story” titled The Eros Project was apparently never published.) Admittedly, I haven’t read any of Zindell’s other books, but based on interviews and the excerpts on Zindell’s website, I suspect that they suffer from some of the same flaws as Zindell’s sci-fi novels — and contain the same strengths.
Reading Zindell’s own statements, it’s obvious that he earnestly believes in the power of imagination and literature. He has no desire to write mere entertainment, but rather, desires to inspire and enlighten his readers, and encourage them to live better, more meaningful and reflective lives. In a 2000 interview with Locus Magazine, he described his goal as nothing less than healing the divide between materialism and spirituality. “If I’m doing my job as a writer,” he said, “I can move people — and I can move myself — into [a] place of transcendence.”
Such statements will no doubt elicit smirks, eye-rolling, and no small amount of snark. And believe me, after reading 2,400+ pages of the man’s writing in the last 12 months, I get it. Zindell’s earnestness leads to a lot of excessive and flowery language, and a real lack of artistic restraint that’s to the storytelling’s detriment. But as frustrated as I got with Neverness and its sequels, I was never not appreciative of that same earnestness, to say nothing of his ambition and scope. Indeed, there’s a fundamental optimism and idealism in Zindell’s works that, much like Star Trek: The Next Generation — which debuted the year before Neverness — creates a refreshingly encouraging and inspiring vision of the future, even if it gets a little preachy at times. (This idealism makes Danlo’s aforementioned betrayal of ahimsa all the more confounding and disappointing.)
Needless to say, I’m curious to see how Zindell’s writing has (or hasn’t) evolved in the last 25 years with The Remembrancer’s Tale, an upcoming novel set in the Neverness universe. The novel focuses on a minor character from the previous novels named Thomas Rane, who serves as the Order’s Lord Remembrancer. In the galactic war’s aftermath, Rane is charged with teaching and guiding a new generation of humans. Unfortunately, his perfect memory, which is key to humanity’s evolution, is challenged by the apparent death of his beloved.
Unfortunately, The Remembrancer’s Tale, which will be released in February, currently has no American distribution, so acquiring a copy may prove difficult. But based on the scarce plot details alone, I can already sense the potential for Zindell to deliver more deeply romanticized revelations concerning humanity’s ultimate destiny. And after writing four novels that focus on the adventures and epiphanies of godlike protagonists and paragons, it might be a refreshing change of pace for his latest novel to focus on someone more… mundane.
That said, I fully suspect that Rane will experience plenty of his own epiphanies, too. I don’t think it would be a David Zindell novel if there weren’t an epiphany or two per chapter. Any and all flaws aside, I’m not sure I’d want it any other way, because I’ve yet to read anything that has intrigued and captivated me, for better or worse, quite like David Zindell’s epic, philosophical sci-fi.