HARBINGER by Jack Skillingstead. Bonney Lake, WA; Fairwood Press; 2010. Trade paperback.
Six years after a drunk driver kills his mother and brother on Halloween night, Ellis Herrick awakens to find himself changed by a mysterious power. For the next two centuries, Ellis pursues answers to the riddle of his immortality, a journey that takes him from the irredeemable past to the far reaches of outer space—and ultimately to the innermost caverns of his wounded psyche. Harbinger is a novel of adventure, evolution, imperishable love, and the shifting nature of personal reality.
"Ellis Herrick awakes one night to find himself made immortal by some incomprehensible, alien power. That launches him on a path of star-crossed love with still-mortal Nichole, who haunts him through centuries of life. He spends quite a bit of his time as an organ bank for some very wealthy, powerful men, which is why he ends up on a generation ship headed for the unknown. Meanwhile, the creatures who bestowed immortality have changed the way humanity looks at reality, such that many now consider Ellis the first sign of a new evolution. Tired of being an organ donor and of being either adored or loathed as an evolutionary novelty, Ellis creates a virus to help him escape the ship’s command level, but that goes horribly wrong. Eventually, it turns out that space, time, and reality are malleable. The relentless focus on Ellis’ search for self-understanding makes the whole mess interesting, and the way Skillingstead maximizes his story’s emotional impact is very impressive." —Booklist.
"Readers familiar with Skillingstead’s short fiction will bring with them to this novel high expectations regarding the quality of the prose. Good; let them schlep these expectations into suitcases as massive as they want, and let them hoist carry-on’s too -– there is room and skill in Harbinger’s prose to accommodate them all. It is lean and adroit, sardonic and heartfelt; a refined product. The excision of technical blemishes makes the revelations of its very blemished characters all the more poignant. Descriptive economy is one of the narrative’s strengths...Harbinger is short by contemporary genre standards, just about 250 pages, but it’s long in texture and it unpacks greater emotional complexity than most trilogies...Perhaps the central complication of this novel lies in its expectation that the reader feel at home when he is anywhere but -– the assumption of comfort in strange places. I believe SF affords the opportunity for that paradoxical mode of deciphering meaning in our lives through the proximity of the distant, and vice versa. We could certainly use more novels like the one at hand to propel our own “consciousness evolution” as readers. It’s only slightly hyperbolic to claim that what Hemingway did for bull-fighting, Skillingstead is doing for SF tropes. He makes them truer than they have been by showing that they were false. Harbinger makes SF “conceits” like immortality and the search for self authentic and painful -- tools of trauma and rarefied beauty. Skillingstead’s protagonists, Ellis Herrick perhaps more than any other, seem to spend most of their lives in the tercio de muerte of a corrida, entering the ring of their experiences alone save for a muleta of disarming, almost lunatic charm and a sword of honesty that cuts inwards as often as it swings out. Skillingstead is the matador of our field." —The New York Review of Science Fiction.
"When he was a child, Ellis lost his mother and older brother in a car accident. Another car crash in adolescence endows him with miraculous powers that include apparent immortality and the ability to regrow body parts. Eventually, Ellis learns that he is a Harbinger, and his spiritual journey lasts for centuries as he shifts through time and space, discovering the outer world and his inner self. VERDICT Skillingstead (Are You There and Other Stories) re-creates the atmosphere of old-style Vonnegut and the ingenuity of Philip K. Dick in a tale that holds its greatest appeal for readers who enjoy contemplating eternal truths in fictional form." —Library Journal.
"When Jack Skillingstead turns to the novel in Harbinger, he mingles elements of the genres we tend to call SF and mainstream so fluently it's clear they're all parts of a single language: one that subverts cliche and probes under the surface to find both humanity and "singularity" in everything from family traumas to a far future of artificial reality and long-distance space travel....Some SF writers give their futures (both earthly and off-planet) a sense of life as we live it, with its moments of confusion, tedium, effort that's more gradual and tentative than heroic or desperate, and the whole spectrum of human frailties. In Harbinger, Skillingsstead takes his reluctantly remarkable protagonist from Earth to space, from awkward youth in the past to survival in a post-human yet unidealized future, until the entire concept of time becomes meaningless. Could everything be simultaneous? Once we have lived long enough with Ellis Herrick, even that freaky concept starts to make sense." —Locus.
"While Jack Skillingstead has created quite a stir with his well-received short fiction, his novel writing talents have never been on display before (to this reviewer's knowledge, at least). Many authors well known for short stories don't make the transition to novel form well, either never putting out a solid novel, or taking a few before they hit their stride. With that in mind, I entered Skillingstead's new novel Harbinger, out in a month or two from Fairwood Press. To say that my initial fears were a waste of worry is a massive understatement. Harbinger runs along at a solid pace, mixing action with hints of romance, philosophy, cultural movements, and much about life, family, and love. Skillingstead seems to effortlessly mix his action filled, quick moving plot with deep questions that leave a lot of thinking to be done after the book is set down. While this novel contains far more than its slight size indicates, it is first and foremost a story of living life and finding love, no matter the struggles and despite all of the mistakes you make. Ellis' tale is at times depressing, poignant, and beautiful. Skillingstead has created an incredible novel, full of power, containing fully-fleshed settings, difficult questions, and characters that you care for. Harbinger is a wonderful book, and I hope that Skillingstead returns to the novel form soon." —Luke Reviews.
"Skillingstead has absolutely hit the nail on the head with Harbinger. While not a perfect novel, the very fact that Skillingstead has taken on such a daunting narrative task and succeeded in creating an engaging novel is worth noting. Harbinger never drags and each jump forward feels like a natural progression in terms of the narrative itself, which produces a kind of episodic, connected storyline leading to an uncertain conclusion...I would recommend it for readers and fans of lighter flavors of science fiction." —Fantasy & SciFi Lovin' Reviews.