The Unsung – Christopher Hinz’s Paratwa trilogy

I’ve never been the biggest fan of science fiction. I’ve read plenty, and I have favorites, but my breadth is lacking. I love Clarke; I have always liked Card even though his legacy is a bit tainted; I read about 100 pages of Dune before giving up because it was so, so boring, but I’ve enjoyed some other stuff by Herbert like The White Plague and The Jesus Incident; I was never the biggest fan of Heinlein but I liked Time Enough For Love and Friday, but my favorite Heinlein novel is Job; I’ve read some Zelazny and enjoyed it but I never got into him further; I only recently read The Left Hand of Darkness and liked it, but it’s the only Le Guin I’ve ever read; and I’ve never read anything by Dick and only “The Sound of Thunder” and Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury. So I’ve just never gotten into the entirety of science fiction, even though I don’t really have anything against it. I drifted in, I drifted out, and I’ll occasionally dabble, but I’m not embedded in the genre. However, I do love Christopher Hinz’s three books about a race of a telepathically linked species bent on conquering humanity. The Paratwa trilogy is a terrific saga, but it never rose to the level of other science fiction works – granted, there’s a LOT of science fiction published every year, and a lot of it gets lost in the churn, but Hinz’s three books are so good and so unique that I think it’s a shame they never got more acclaim. There’s also the problem that Hinz himself has not been very prolific over the years. The Paratwa books were, for many years, the only novels he ever published. He brought out a short story soon after the first one appeared, and recently he wrote a “prequel” book, but that’s it. He dabbled in comics, writing Gemini Blood (with Tommy Lee Edwards on art) for DC’s Helix line in the mid-1990s, a comic that was his first foray into “prequel” territory, as it’s about the Paratwa in the 21st century, not the 24th as in the novel, and he also wrote Dead Corps (with Steve Pugh on art) for Helix and Blade (also with Pugh) for Marvel. But that’s it. His lack of proficiency means that his name wasn’t out there getting mentioned, so no one ever went back and discovered his older work, and I imagine that if you didn’t know about his three novels years ago, there would be no reason for you to know about them now. But I’m here to change that!

The three books of the trilogy are Liege-Killer (1987), Ash Ock (1989), and The Paratwa (1991). The final two, I must admit, have terrible, generic titles, which might also account for their obscurity. The first book has an intriguing title, despite it just identifying the main villain of the book, but the final two simply identify the rulers of the new species and then the name of the entire species, and they’re just boring titles. But that’s neither here nor there! Let’s delve into the books, shall we?

Liege-Killer takes place in AD 2307, and the other two books 56 years later, a few centuries after a nuclear/biological apocalypse that made the Earth largely unlivable. Humanity has retreated to 216 orbiting cylinders, called the Colonies, while they try to restore the planet and return to it. One night, a woman and her 12-year-old son witness a murder – their next-door neighbor is killed by two men who seem to work in perfect tandem. She realizes that she’s watching a Paratwa, a species created in a lab on Earth in the mid-21st century, one in which two bodies share one consciousness and can therefore do things normal humans can’t, like be unbelievably good assassins because they can be in two places at once and can survey a scene more quickly and in toto while striking with more weapons than a regular human. The woman and her son contact E-Tech, the government agency that handles technology and its dissemination throughout the Colonies – after the apocalypse, tech was severely restricted and E-Tech is the guardian of it all, slowly re-introducing it so that it won’t corrupt humanity again like it did centuries earlier. Rome France, the head of E-Tech, decides on the radical step of bringing two men from the 21st century out of frozen stasis – many humans chose that route instead of living in the Colonies – who he thinks can help. They are Nick, a computer programmer, and Gillian, a warrior. In the 21st century, they were in charge of a team of hunters who tracked down Paratwa and killed them. Gillian, in fact, is one of the few humans who mastered the Paratwa’s primary weapon – a light weapon called a Cohe wand. France asks them to hunt the Paratwa on the loose, and so the plot kicks in!

The books are a nice blend of action, political machinations, big and little mysteries, and philosophical musings. In the first book, Nick and Gillian have to figure out what’s going on while the Council, a group of five that rules the Colonies, is actively either blocking them from solving the problem or simply so caught up in their own issues that they can’t see the bigger picture. Some Councilors refuse to accept that the Paratwa is on the loose, given that all of them were supposed to have been destroyed before and during the Apocalypse. Franco is far-seeing, so he’s able to understand the threat. Obviously, someone is pulling threads behind the scene (early on, we’re introduced to one bad guy, but the identity of the other one remains a mystery until the end), and Nick slowly begins to believe that a member of the Paratwa so-called “royal caste,” the Ash Ock, is in the Colonies manipulating events. Gillian, meanwhile, is still mourning the death of his wife, Catharine, who was killed in a Paratwa attack and is the reason he hates them so much, but as we move through the book, it becomes clear that there’s more to the story than that. The first book even deals with some culture shock, as Nick and Gillian have been asleep for a little over 200 years, so Hinz writes some interesting passages about the way they perceive how humanity has evolved since they left the planet. Of course, the book has to have a lot of action, so eventually Gillian has to fight the Paratwa, and Hinz’s fight scenes are really well done – he does an excellent job explaining how the Paratwa moves and how hard it is to fight one, and in the third book, he even gets into the head of a Paratwa to explain how one sees a fight. It could easily be confusing, but it never is, due to Hinz’s precise writing.

The first book obviously sets up a sequel, as humanity learns that the Paratwa survived the Apocalypse and are returning to Earth on spaceships that they co-opted from humans who were supposed to be looking for livable planets and will arrive in 56 years. However, the first book is also fairly self-contained – it ends with a good resolution to the story, while the second book, not unlike The Empire Strikes Back, ends rather gloomily and is meant to be read in tandem with the third book. In 2363, the 12-year-old from the first book, Jerem Marth, is now a Councilor himself, and he brings Nick and Gillian back out of stasis (whence they returned at the end of the first book) to deal with the looming Paratwa threat. The second and third books are a bit more philosophical, as Gillian begins to learn more about himself (he suffers from some memory loss) and we also learn a great deal about the Paratwa and their origins. Hinz also introduces human characters who seem somewhat sympathetic to the Paratwa, others who want to fight them at all costs, and more politicians who are far too cautious in a dangerous world – in other words, the second and third books, while not as straight-forwardly dynamic as the first, are a bit deeper and richer in terms of showing the world and all its facets. The mysteries continue, there’s a new horrific specific threat to deal with, and the fight scenes are as vicious as ever, but Hinz is able to make the world in which the action takes place a bit more vibrant.

Hinz isn’t the greatest pure writer in the world, but he is engaging, and while occasionally his prose becomes a bit pretentious, it’s usually when he’s writing about some of the more philosophical ideas in the book and not constantly – when he’s describing action and violence, he keeps the prose bare bones, which gives it an immediacy and power. He links the violence with sex, too, which is not a new idea but takes on an odd shading in these books once we know more about the Paratwa and how they operate. His characters are vivid, and he does a pretty decent job with the world of the 24th century – there are some anachronisms, obviously, in the technology, but not really in the way people act. Hinz identifies Nick as a “midget,” true, but he casually mentions all kinds of sexual and cultural identities without judgment, which is not as common as you might think, especially from science fiction writers of the 20th century. The mélange of humanity that one finds in these books reminds me a bit of Blade Runner, although Hinz, naturally, can bring in even more cultures because he doesn’t have to worry about a budget. Despite some of the tech anachronisms, the book doesn’t feel too dated as many older science fiction books do (I realize that the ones I’m thinking of are from the 1950s to 1970s, so there’s more time for them to feel dated, but still), and Hinz’s clever structuring means that whenever there’s some heavy stuff, we can be sure someone will get killed soon enough to break up the deeper musings. It’s not a unique way to structure a book, but it’s still a good one.

The books aren’t hard to find (I linked to the first one below; remember, if you use that link to buy anything, not just the book, we get a small piece of it!), and they seem pretty cheap, unless, I suppose, you want to find first-print hardcovers. I’m astonished, frankly, that no one has made a trilogy of movies out of these books. They are good lengths for movies, they have several strong characters, a good overall plot, lots of action, and they probably wouldn’t require too much expensive effects. The Colonies look just like Earth cities, they’re just inside long cylindrical objects, and the “sky effects” would be all that you’d need, as most scenes could be filmed on actual sets in actual locations rather than all in front of green screens. There are plenty of violent fights and just enough philosophy and political maneuverings to satisfy a lot of different kinds of movie watchers. I don’t know if it’s just that they’re too obscure these days, but that shouldn’t stop someone from optioning them! Alas, it will probably never happen, but you can still read the books! If you like science fiction, these are great books, and if you don’t like science fiction, there’s enough of other stuff to keep you entertained. It’s a win for everyone!

2 Comments

  1. tomfitz1

    You should check out THE EXPANSE for your Sci-Fi fix. Book or Tv series.

    It’s pretty engaging. One of the blurbs describes it as The Expanse does for Sci-Fi, what GOT does for Fantasy.

    Amazon just picked it up for Season 4 after Sy-Fy cancelled it.

    As for the book series, there’s supposed to be 9 books, with the seventh just out.

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