[2 October 2007]
Jack Dann has observed that “time and memory” are his signature themes, the obsessions over which his novels brood. The Man Who Melted, first published in 1984 and newly reissued by Pyr in 2007, is a splendid example. As Raymond Mantle searches for his memories of his dead wife, sampling the thoughts of the living and the dying, Dann launches a brilliant investigation into shared memory, relationships, and identity. Telepathy allows Dann to explore the ways we seek and flee from fusion with our friends and sexual partners.
The Man Who Melted is set largely in Italy, France, and New York, after a cataclysmic event known as “The Great Scream.” A massive unleashing of telepathic force, the Scream rips apart the walls of the self, merging into “a many-headed beast screaming for blood . . . a thousand sirens promising darkness and cold love. Every Screamer was changing, melting into someone Mantle had known or loved or hated.” The Scream has left behind roving bands of Screamers, who terrorize urban areas with their ability to turn any crowd of people into a destructive band.
Although society demonizes the Screamers, characters both crave and fear the telepathic powers they represent. In keeping with the decadence of Dann’s post-apocalyptic universe, a world in which passengers can sign up for a re-created Titanic voyage, (complete with sinking ship and frozen bodies), high-stakes gambling is popular. One of the book’s most brilliant sections is a description of a game called blind shemmy, a card game in which pairs of players duel psychically to discover one another’s cards. What’s complicated about the game is how vulnerable one becomes to one’s partner, a vulnerability matched only by the malignant triumph of exposing the thoughts of one’s opponents’.
If the Screamers terrorize cities, they also offer precisely what Mantle lacks: memory of his wife. What bothers Mantle most about his amnesia is that his memories are evidently still in his head, because the Screamers torment him with images of her. As a result, he experiments with a cult whose practitioners surf the consciousness of those about to die, hoping to connect psychically with the dead.
Dann’s prose is evocative. Here’s his initial description of Mantle’s problem:
He had lost her during the Great Scream, when the screaming mobs tore New York City apart, leaving thousands dead and countless others roving about like the mind-deadened victims of concentration camps. With the exception of a few childhood memories, he couldn’t remember her after the Great Scream. It was as if she had been ripped from his memory. Mantle’s amnesia was not total; he could summon up certain incidents and remember every detail and everyone involved except Josiane. She inhabited his memory like a shadow, an emptiness, and he was obsessed with finding her, with remembering. She held the key to his past. She was the element that had burned out, plunging his past into darkness.
After allowing us to think first that his wife was merely dead, the second sentence ratchets up the intensity of his loss. Dann urges us to reflect on the role of others in making up our past. The retroactive elision of his wife who is, peculiarly, also his sister, from his memory consistently undermines Mantle’s confidence, his self-definition, and his plans. His bafflement is nowhere more evident than in his confusion as to whether Josiane’s absence is a shadow or a burned-out element. Does she block the light of his consciousness, or has she removed some of the light? The search for Josiane turns out to be a search for the relationship between memory and desire.
The Man Who Melted was a finalist for the 1985 Nebula Award, which of course went to William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Gibson shares Dann’s fascination with remembering, once claiming that his novels’ computers are usually metaphors for memory. The difference between these novels’ approach is striking. It’s too simple to suggest that Dann’s version is more focused on desire than is Gibson’s. However, our experience of the memory of other people, and our curiosity about others’ memories of us, is certainly much more the realm of The Man Who Melted.
Neuromancer focuses much more rigorously on memory and the self, and the dependence of both of these upon the body. If Gibson’s novel encourages us to think about how we build our lives out of images of others, Dann’s emphasizes the alluring danger posed by others: How can we distinguish ourselves from other people? Why do we want to?
Pyr has done a worthy thing in bringing this book back into print. The edition features an introduction from Robert Silverberg, who touts Dann’s “Heinleinian predictive touches,” which is right, but also probably over hypes its “disturbingly nonlinear” plot, which is only nonlinear relative to hackish implementations of genre conventions. The Man Who Melted has languished under-read for too long. May it now get a host of fresh readers.