Book Review: The Measurements of Decay

Edin, K. K. The Measurements of Decay. Metempsy Publications (2018), 588 pp. ISBN: 978-1732062207

By Jeffery Vail, Boston University

The Measurements of Decay, the first novel by K. K. Edin (a former student of mine), is an ambitious and brilliant work, a novel of ideas, centrally concerned with philosophy, technology, morality and the problem of free will. Published last year (2018) by Metempsy Publications, it spent time as the number-one-selling science fiction novel on, won the 2018 NYC Big Book Award’s Distinguished Favorite in Science Fiction prize and has spawned passionate discussion groups online.

Occurring across multiple planets in different epochs, the story is told from three points of view: that of Sielle, a woman unstuck in time and space who learns to teleport herself through the cosmos at will; Tikan Solstafir, a wandering nonconformist in humanity’s spacefaring future; and the narrator, an angry, misanthropic intellectual outsider whose journey ultimately takes him from twentieth-century Paris to points far distant indeed. This last character is in the tradition of such works as Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, Hamsun’s Hunger and Ellison’s Invisible Man: an intelligent, passionate extraordinary loner who directly addresses and sometimes confronts or antagonizes the reader. The plot concerns the fate of the human race, whom we witness gradually succumbing to two technologies that annihilate individuality and freethinking: the procrustus (a computer implanted inside everyone’s brain) and the metempsy (virtual fantasy worlds within which our descendants spend almost all of their waking lives). Tikan and Sielle become involved in a desperate plan to free humankind from its enslavement by machines, corporations and a shadowy, all-powerful puppet master.

Edin’s prose is daring, beautiful and against the grain of contemporary fiction. The closest stylistic parallel that I know of in recent decades is Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, which itself is redolent of Melville’s style in Moby-Dick. In an era when fictional prose inclines toward the stripped-down, dumbed-down or babblingly hyper verbal, Edin’s writing is darkly baroque, lyrical and full of blood and thunder, while at the same time disciplined and polished. Whereas some readers accustomed to either bare-bones, matter-of-fact descriptions at one extreme or the undisciplined, manic prolixity of what the critic James Wood called “hysterical realism” at the other might find Edin’s prose difficult, lovers of nineteenth-century authors such as Poe, Dostoyevsky, De Quincey or Dickens will feel right at home. It is a joy to behold a young writer who is brave and brilliant enough to pull it off.

Though the future (and past and present) that Edin depicts is full of darkness and horrors, the novel is inspired throughout by a deeply humanistic vision. There is nothing fashionably fatalistic or nihilistic about this story. An underlying sympathy with and forgiveness of the sins and idiocies of humanity glows throughout the book. Edin has an Olaf-Stapledon-like ability to imagine even great species-wide disasters as mere episodes in a vastly longer timeframe, combined with an Aldous-Huxley-like urgent concern with the technologically accelerated decadence and degeneration of human culture. The narrator is philosophically literate, and Edin is confident enough in his readers to assume they will not be put off by references to Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, John Stuart Mill and so on. A dreamlike account of a descent into the tomb of Immanuel Kant in Kaliningrad’s Königsberg Cathedral is a turning point in the novel and a tour de force of surreal description. Edin has lived in several countries and cultures and effortlessly evokes the feel of Parisian hotels and Russian city streets. Other unforgettable sequences include a disturbing portrait of a nightmarish automated city of the future filled with fully degenerate humans; a shocking scene of brutality in a hotel cloakroom; and a terrifying final confrontation that reminded me of both the final canto of Dante’s Inferno and The Wizard of Oz.

Some readers have apparently blanched a bit at the novel’s occasional scenes of grisly violence, but I find the novel no more violent than countless cable TV shows and movies that millions of people watch with perfect equanimity. It is doubtless a testament to Edin’s talent that the killings and mutilations he describes are felt so viscerally by the reader. If there is anything about Edin’s writing that one could imagine improving in subsequent efforts, it would have to be the dialogue, which on a few occasions becomes a shade too declamatory and grandiloquent. There is very little humor, but I count that a strength: None of Edin’s grand and moral vision is ever undermined by anything like cheap postmodern irony. From the earliest pages, images and concepts from Greek and Roman myth suffuse the narrative, and for those readers who recognize them they are yet another element of this extraordinary book to savor.

This is a novel of rare power and depth. It ought to be read by anyone who loves great writing and deep, serious meditations on where the human race is heading and how thoroughly the road to hell can be paved with professedly good intentions. The Measurements of Decay ought to be classed with the best novels of 2018, and one of the best science fiction novels of the century so far.