Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Bob Rich
Dr Pip Lipkin has lived for 12,000 years, in many lives, different sexes, and even different species, and he’s here for a reason. Dr Bob Rich’s Ascending Spiralis a true genre-buster, incorporating elements of historical fiction, literary fiction, science fiction, and even a hint of nonfiction, to create an entertaining novel with an important message.
Beautifully researched, the book opens in present day, but quickly moves back to 805-806 AD, where the first person protagonist is named Padraig, and he is fighting a Viking attack. The book then moves into the life of Dermot, an Irishman dealing with the campaign of repression conducted by the English against the Irish during this period. Dermot’s section is the longest, taking the reader through full scale war, vigilantism, transportation to Australia as a convict, slavery, life on a squat as a free man, and the committing of a terrible crime. Dermot’s act has repercussions that take him into the next chapter of his existence, as Amelia, a woman who has to experience the consequences of Dermot’s crime again and again. When Amelia dies, our protagonist experiences something completely different – a life that is free of gender and hate – focused solely on survival and the support of the species. The next life jumps to 10,000 BCE, where, as a giant space flower, the protagonist commits a thoughtless but devastating crime, the likes of which forms the basis for the atonement and multiple births throughout the novel. The final section belongs to Pip, bringing us back to the start.
Pip is the most evolved being and the development from Padraig to Pip is the ascending spiral that the title refers to. Along the way he learns (and teaches us) about the meaninglessness and pain of war, about greed and violence, about the folly of our desperation for happiness over wisdom, about the beauty and delicacy of our planet, and about the power of love and forgiveness to change these cycles. The themes of the book are Buddhist, showing us the Samsara or “the cycle of birth and death” and the lessons we all need to learn in order to evolve ourselves and to save our rapidly dying world. Though the ultimate purpose of the book does appear to be didactic – global warming and impending environmental catastrophe are generally accepted within the mainstream scientific community as proven fact – and the parallels between Dr Lipkin and the author’s own studies are probably the subject of at least a few fascinating interviews, the story reads well as fiction, creating each world entirely so that the reader becomes engrossed in the historical time and place along with the protagonist. The overall message is delivered with subtlety and sophistication, and the descriptions are particularly powerful, especially in Dermot’s section where we move from war-torn Ireland to NSW. The long, painful journey by boat is evocative, as this example from Dermot’s time in solitary confinement shows:
Water constantly seeped through the timbers of the ship. I had no way of measuring time, except that every now and then two men came, one carrying a lantern, the other a bit of food. Four extra soldiers came the first time, and the doctor carrying clothes. They allowed me to dress before shackling me to the chain again. On every second or third occasion, they also had an Irishman along, who brought an empty bucket and took away the one I’d filled. I did have company: rats scurrying around. At first, I was concerned they might bite me, but this didn’t happen and after a while I ignored them.
The space flower descriptions were also well done – adding a fun sci-fi twist to the story and showing Rich’s scientific bent:
The fifth planet was unique in my experience. It twinkled everywhere with low-energy emissions over a wide band of wavelengths. That was pretty to look at, but utterly baffling. I couldn’t think of any natural phenomenon that’d account for this kind of radiation, and it clearly had a water-oxygen sheath. I’d heard of small, primitive, unintelligent life forms on planetary surfaces, but of course they were not in a deadly corrosive environment like this planet’s.(94)
Through each section there are a number of important threads that link the novel together, including the recurring cycle of racism and prejudice in all of its forms, of uncontrolled hunger and its ability to damage, and of the healing power of sympathy, connection and perception. All of these threads come together through a series of stories that are historically engaging and powerful, at times whimsical, and above all, meticulously presented. Ascending Spiral is a book that will take the reader to many different places and times, showing, ultimately, that our differences and divisions, even at their most devastating, are less important than our similarities. This is an powerful and timely novel full of wisdom and insight.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.