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CS: About Clever Daughter - can you remember anything at all?
FG: If you can hold on to the terror you can hold on to the world.

--Fremder, (p. 35)


Fremder (1996)

A Novel by Russell Hoban



Sadly, as of this update (March, 2002) Fremder is out of print in both the UK and US. In fact, it's never been released in the US, and has never seen a softcover release anywhere. In a nutshell, this hauntingly beautiful examination of being is probably Russ's hardest-to-find book at the moment ... but it's well worth the search. Sometimes used or imported copies can be found on the Bibliofind site, and the other used sites listed in the Places to Buy Stuff area on the Links page.


I suspect it's possible to pick up Fremder cold and simply be entranced by its shimmering prose, its knife-edged observations, and the dreamlike strangeness of its world. But I can't help noting that of all Mr. Hoban's books, I think Fremder is the one that most stands to be enriched by a previous familiarity with some of his other writings. In particular I'd recommend a prior reading of The Medusa Frequency, in which Mr. Hoban lays the groundwork for his here-and-gone, flickering-of-being theory of reality, as well as his obsession with the gaze of a certain Vermeer painting. And if you've read his short story, "The Raven" (included in his collection The Moment Under The Moment), the ravens that flit through Fremder's pages will carry extra import. Beyond that, you may want to bone up on the biblical story of Elijah, particularly the verses in I Kings (Chapter 17, Verses 1-7) in which Elijah is fed by ravens.

Fremder may also be the Hoban book that can most easily be plugged into the Science Fiction tradition. It reminds me of some of Gene Wolfe's best work—specifically his way of handing the reader a labyrinth of eerie riddles peopled with unforgettably strange characters.

As Fremder opens, we see a figure in a blue coverall tumbling over and over as it comes toward us in the deep chill and darkness of the Fourth Galaxy. The striking thing about this figure is that it wears no space suit, no helmet, no oxygen. Just a man tumbling through frozen space, amazingly alive. The man turns out to be Fremder Gorn, the First Navigation Officer on the deep-space tanker Clever Daughter. On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, November 4, 2052, Fremder is the only survivor out of a crew of seven on board the Clever Daughter, which has mysteriously disappeared. Not surprisingly, the authorities want to know what happened. Unfortunately, Fremder either doesn't know himself, or isn't telling.

The fragmented, frightening future that Fremder introduces us to is one only Mr. Hoban could have dreamed up. It's a future in which the streets are owned by roving gangs called Shorties and Clowns, or Prongs and Arseholes, while "Class-A" citizens use locked elevated walkways to get around. A future in which robots wear the faces of Vermeer paintings, and humanity has mastered intergalactic travel due to the invention of "flicker drive."

Redon's Raven
Odilon Redon's raven
Flicker Drive was inspired by the memoirs of film director Gösta Kraken (a Medusa Frequency character who puts in a flashback cameo here), and refined by Fremder's mother, the now-departed scientist Helen Gorn. As Fremder's narrative progresses, we learn that he never met his famous mother: she committed suicide when she was seven months pregnant with him, leaving a note for the sanatorium staff instructing them to name him Fremder Elijah Gorn. She left a note for Fremder, too: "Dear Fremder Elijah, I'm sorry that I'm not going to be around to be your mother but each of us can only go so far: I've gone my distance and now you'll have to go yours. Learn the speech of the ravens and they will feed you. Good luck, your mother, Helen Gorn."

It's only through diligent research that Fremder has managed to put together the pieces of his family history. How his grandfather, Elias Gorn, began the research that would eventually enable flicker drive, a form of instantaneous travel based on the theory that reality isn't constant: it flickers, like a film. As Gösta Kraken puts it: "Being is not a steady state but an occulting one: we are all of us a succession of stillness blurring into motion on the wheel of action, and it is in those spaces of black between the pictures that we find the heart of mystery in which we are never allowed to rest."

After Elias died of cancer, Helen Gorn, along with her brother Isodor, or "Izzy," picked up the research where her father left off. The experiments that ultimately yielded the technology to explore distant galaxies led Helen and Izzy to madness and destruction: in sanatorium transcripts and diary entries we learn about the ravens of blackness that fed them, and the thinness of the reality membrane their research sought to transgress.

As the backstory is unfolding, Fremder's being grilled for his own story, and the grill's getting hotter every minute. His resistance leads him to tangle--on all kinds of levels--with the brilliant and seductive Dr. Caroline Lovecraft, Head of the Physio/Psycho Unit. (Dr. Lovecraft is a high-voltage, "strong healthy woman" whose conversational repertoire includes flawless Cthulhu-speak. Her unsuccessful attempts to pierce Fremder's personal and psychological barriers are only one of the avenues by which Fremder summons up biting meditations on loneliness and aloneness.)

Fremder meets his match when he's delivered into the Orwellian embrace of Pythia, a "23.7 billion-photoneuron Data Evaluator" (read: big scary supercomputer), whose weapons include a hotwired giant mantis shrimp capable of broadcasting the color of Fremder's terror. Pythia is determined to pry his secret lose--and happens to be keeping back a doozy or three of her own.

Fremder, like Pilgermann, is not an easy read--it's an anything-but-linear ontological adventure that delves all the way down to the fear that quivers at the core of human consciousness. Indeed, though he never puts in an appearance under his own name, it's arguable that the true main character in Fremder is The Kraken, that deep, ancient and childlike presence from The Medusa Frequency who communicates with Herman Orff in green glowing block capitals on his computer screen, and whose great theme is The Terror of Being. We hear his trademark "NNVSNUU" and "RRNDU" and "TSRUNGH" issuing from the mouths of more than one character in Fremder, and the "ever-widening ripples" of his terror manifest as the the everything-fear that animates these characters.

But Fremder's salvation, and the novel's accomplishment, lie in the understanding that the Kraken's terror is itself both riddle and answer, problem and solution. "If you can hold on to the terror," Fremder tells us early on from something like a trance, "you can hold on to the world." If you can hold on to Fremder through its assorted jumps and flickers, you may come away with a better grasp of it all yourself.



"He [Hoban] displays prodigious storytelling skills and an uncanny talent for fleshing out allegories. The result is an urgent, bitterly ironic but at the last, tender evocation of the capacities of the human spirit." --Independent on Sunday

"Shot through with Hoban's trademark luminous prose...a book to read and re-read." --Financial Times

"Unputdownable, moving, ingenious..." --Evening Standard

"Nobody concerned with the future of either mankind or humour could 'nilspond' to this funny and funky tour de force." --Mail on Sunday

"Hoban is not so much a novelist as a poet...this is a book that cries out for a reading by the author. Anyone who has read any of Russell Hoban's works will immediately want to know how to get a copy of this..."
--Evelyn C. Leeper



Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring
Early on in my childhood I sensed the thinness of reality and I became terrified of what might be on the other side of the membrane: I imagined a ceaseless becoming that swallowed up everything. I used to lie awake in the night and grind my teeth. But after a while anything becomes home, even terror. (p. 15)

More and more I find that life is a series of disappearances followed usually but not always by reappearances; you disappear from your morning self and reappear as your afternoon self; you disappear from feeling good and reappear feeling bad. And people, even face to face and clasped in each other's arms, disappear from each other. (p. 32)

Being is not a steady state but an occulting one: we are all of us a succession of stillness blurring into motion on the wheel of action, and it is in those spaces of black between the pictures that we find the heart of mystery in which we are never allowed to rest. The flickering of a film interrupts the intolerable continuity of apparent world; subliminally it gives us those in-between spaces of black that we crave. --Gösta Kraken, Perception Perceived: an Unfinished Memoir (p. 9)

There's more emptiness in the air than there used to be, and its spores grow flowers of dust in the lungs. (p. 32)

As a child I used to think about my mother and about her grandparents who died in Auschwitz. And my unknown father, I mostly thought of him as dead too. The dead are with me in the ordinary moments of every day--sometimes I see my hand lift a cup of coffee or sign my name and I feel ghost hands moving with mine, lifting their no-coffee, signing their no-names. And when I flicker they're always with me. Other deep spacers have told me they never dream in flicker--how can M-waves dream?--but I know that I do. I always come out of it with a deep sadness, half-remembering blurred faces. Each of us is the forward point of a procession stretching back into the darkness. And even within oneself, every moment is a self that dies: the road to each day's midnight is littered with corpses and all of them whispering. As I write this I'm listening to Beethoven's F Major Quartet, Opus 59, No. 1, the first Razumovsky, while thousands of my dead selves hum along with it, sometimes weeping for times that are gone. (p. 15)

I was vibrant with fear at the time; I felt as if I was a puzzle of many pieces, all of them speeding outward from me in all directions. I was afraid I'd never get them back together and at the same time I was afraid that I would. (p. 35)

I've always considered sleep after lovemaking more intimate that the lovemaking: getting through the night together, lying embraced until an arm becomes numb, then lying like two spoons until sleep doesn't come that way, then turning back and reverting to aloneness together and the snores, farts, and sighs of the passage from darkness to morning. (p.111)

The old feeling of sitting up in bed and looking into the dark came over me and I could feel my reality envelope beginning to come apart like a wet paper bag. Let it, I said to myself: perhaps this world that's in us, this world that we're in, was never meant to be fixed and permanent; perhaps it's only one of a continuous succession of world-ideas passing through the world-mind. And we are, all of us, the passing and impermanent perceivers of it. (p. 175)

CS: About Clever Daughter - can you remember anything at all?
FG: If you can hold on to the terror you can hold on to the world. (p. 35)

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