Book Review 51: The Traveler

In the eighteenth century the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed the Panopticon: a model prison where one observer could monitor hundreds of prisoners while remaining unseen. The Brethren used the Panopticon prison design as a theoretical basis for their ideas. They believed that it would be possible to control the entire world as soon as the Travelers were exterminated.

Page 92

Remember the Panopticon? The model works perfectly if all humanity lives inside the building. It doesn't work if one individual can open a door and stand outside the system.

Page 236

The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks is a compelling book that I couldn't put down. I constantly wanted to know what was going to happen next. It succeeds based on powerful story telling, if not fantastic writing.

By that I mean the writing style is not the strongest. The author's style comes across as immature at times and too heavy handed with his message. At the same time, for every moment I rolled my eyes, thinking, "He did not just write that, did he?" there were 5 or more moments when I was excited to keep reading.

An impressive website also supports the book. Fans of The Traveler will who want to explore the world of the book and the issues it raises can spend time at th website and dive into the six different realms.

Characters in The Traveler fall into several groups -- Travelers, Harlequins, Pathfinders, Brethren (or Tabula), Citizens, and Drones, among others.

Travelers are people a that can let their spirit (or "Light") break free from their bodies and this world, and travel to other realms (based on Tibethian Buddhist mythology). All great prophets, or agents of change, have been Travelers. Their passion and alternate world views are inspired by their experiences in other realms.

Harlequins are an ancient order of warriors who are sworn to protect the Travelers and keep them safe from the Brethren. They are raised as fighters from the time they are small children. While they have tremendous discipline, they thrive in an atmosphere of chaos. In goal, philosophy, and tactics, they are the opposite of the Brethren.

At the bus stop, Maya was presented with more choices. She could walk to her hotel or wave down a cruising taxi. The legendary Japanese Harlequin, Sparrow, once wrote that true warriors should cultivate randomness." In a few words, he had suggested an entire philosophy. A Harlequin rejected mindless routines and comfortable habits. You lived a life of discipline, but you weren't afraid of disorder.

Page 10

"She accepts the possibility of death and it doesn't seem to frighten her. That's a big advantage for a warrior."

Page 202

When offered two options, Harlequins may often to a coin flip, or use a random number generator, to make the decisions for them.

Pathfinders teach Travelers how to travel.

The Brethren are "the man." They seek order and control of the populace above all else. They are the established order -- the vast machine we all live in. They aim to stamp out the unexpected.

It annoyed Boone that people still refused to recognize the truth. There was no need to worry about religion or philosophy; the truth was determined by whoever was in power.

Page 180

Citizens and Drones are the general populace.

"Drones are people who are so overwhelmed by the challenge of surviving that they're unaware of anything outside of their day-to-day lives."

''You mean poor people?"

"They can be poor or trapped in the Third World, but they're still capable of transforming themselves. Father used to say, 'Citizens ignore the truth. Drones are just too tired.' "

Page 9

The book is about the choices people make. Do they choose to go on auto-pilot and become mindless consumers of culture and products? Or do they choose to question the rules of civilization and make deliberate choices about what they want to do and to choose their own destinies?

Vicki sat in the front seat of the van and looked out at the parking lot while Maya searched for another Harlequin. Citizens came out of the warehouse store with extra-large shopping baskets piled high with food, clothing, and electronic equipment. The baskets were heavy with all these things, and the citizens had to lean forward to push them to their cars. Vicki remembered reading in high school about Sisyphus, the Greek king doomed forever to push a stone up a mountain.

Page 164

Hollis paused and stared at the students sitting in front of him. He seemed to be evaluating their strengths and weaknesses. "In New Babylon, many of the people you know think they're being deliberate when they're just on automatic. Like a bunch of robots, they drive their car down the freeway, go to work, get a paycheck in exchange for sweat and pain and humiliation, then drive back home to listen to fake laughter coming from the television set. They're already dead. Or dying. But they don't know it.

"Then there's another group of people—the party boys and girls. Smoke some weed. Drink some malt liquor. Try to hook up for a little quick sex. They think they're connecting with their instincts, their natural power, but you know what? They're on automatic, too.

"The warrior is different. The warrior uses the power of the brain to be deliberate and the power of the heart to be instinctive. Warriors are never automatic except when they're brushing their teeth."

Hoilis paused and spread his hands. "Try to think. Feel. Be real." He clapped his hands together "That's all for today."

page 167 - 168

This all happens against the back drop of our own modern culture, and the author uses the story as a cautionary tale about the increasing surveilance we are already under in real life. From data mining to credit card transactions to security cameras popping up all over the place, the world the author writes about really is our world.

Panopticon is the Brethren's approach to controlling the world. It's based on a prison design by Jeremy Bentham. The prison was designed in such a way that inmates could not see one another, the inmates could not see the guard, and that from one place, a single guard could watch hundreds of inmates.

It's a concept Matt Ruff also used in his book, "Bad Monkees."

Since the inmates could not see they guards, they could never be sure exactly when they were being watched. Essentially, the guards did not even have to be there the whole time, since the inmates would never know when the were unguarded. It was a model of efficiency.

The Brethren embrace panopticon to monitor the citizenry. They can use electronics, police, guards, airport security, and suspicious neighbors to monitor people. The all-seeing system gives them power.

Even in Las Vegas.

For most people Las Vegas was a happy destination, where you could drink too much and gamble and watch strange women take off their clothes. But this city of pleasure was a three-dimensional illusion. Surveillance cameras watched constantly, computers monitored the gambling, and a legion of security guards with American flags sewn on the sleeves of their uniforms made sure nothing truly unusual would ever occur. This was the goal of the Tabula: the appearance of freedom with the reality of control.

Page 356-357

The author himself lives of the grid. John Twelve Hawks is a name he adopted for himself, and he does his best to live in relative anonymity.

The "Realty of Control" the Brethren wants is really only possible with the consent, or, rather, lack of dissent from those being controlled. Like the prisoners in Benthem's design, once people reject the "appearance" of being guarded, and choose to look at things differently,then they can begin reclaiming their freedom.

"Everything got worse after that. There were hundreds of police officers at the Washington airport because of some kind of special alert. I got searched twice passing through security and then I saw a man have a heart attack in the waiting lounge. My plane was delayed six hours. I spent my time drinking and staring at a television in the airport bar. More death and destruction. Crime. Pollution. All the news stories were telling me to be frightened. All the commercials were telling me to buy things that I didn't need. The message was that people could only be passive victims or consumers.

Page 306

The story itself follows the path of two brothers -- potential Travelers as they choose their paths in this world. Maya, the Harlequin, is dispatched to LA to protect them, if they are, indeed, able to Travel to the different realms. She is there to protect them from the Brethren, which wants the potential Travelers for their own purposes.

Each side elicits allies and fights for its cause. We hear about the current battles, and we hear about the battles that played out over the decades.

At time the book is brutally violent.

Interestingly enough, the orderly, controlled group -- the Brethren -- is the most chaotically violent. They use all sorts of tools to fight viciously -- from private armies to gangsters to rape to genetically engineered animals, bred to eat defenseless or defeated victims alive.

The Harlequins -- the force of randomness -- fight with strict discipline. They aren't afraid to kill their enemies, but they are not killing them gleefully. It's about efficiently protecting themselves and their charges.

The aspects of life that the Harlequins and the Brethren are most afraid of, are embodied in their own fighting styles.

After all this, the book is really about choice. It's about people finally having the opportunity to make a deliberate decision about what they want to do with their lives. And when presented with question -- that fundamental decision that defines who they are as a person, what decisions do they make?

"Every new experience is unusual. The rest of life is just sleep and committee meetings. Now come along and shut the door behind you."

Page 34

"I've organized sweat lodge weekends for divorced men and women. After two days of sweating and pounding a drum, people decide they don't hate their ex-spouse anymore." Thomas smiled and gestured with his hands. "It's not a big thing, but it helps the world. All of us fight a battle every day, but we just don't know it. Love tries to defeat hatred. Bravery destroys fear.

Page 151

Vicki stood between her mother and the Harlequin. So much of her life had seemed hazy and vague until that moment, like an out-of-focus photograph in which blurry figures ran away from the camera. But now, right now, she had a real choice in her life. Walking is easy, said the Prophet. But it requires faith to find the right path.

Page 162

The Traveler is definitely one I suggest reading. It raises important questions that it might not be too late to answer. Besides the subtext, the story itself is fantastic. And, while the writing appears juvenile at time, the author's story telling skills make this an excellent read.

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