Thursday, September 28, 2023

Review: Preset by Sarina Dahlan

An attempt to top its ambitious predecessor Reset by not providing a sequel, but rather a prequel showing how the world of the four cities came to be.

Second acts are hard. The “Sophomore Slump” is real. And yet there is a real pressure in the book industry to follow up with a sequel, with a series, with a shared universe. A very less trod path, though, is to try and do a prequel to the wildly ambitious book you have just had published, showing the underpinnings of how the strange post-apocalyptic, haunting utopian(?) society of your first book got that way in the first place.

This is Sarina Dahlan’s Preset.

Dahlan’s Reset was an ambitious, and to my view, extremely effective novel that posed central and important questions about identity, memory, personality and what it takes to build and nurture a new kind of society after an apocalypse. And what happens when a personal relationship, or dare I say, a love, proves stronger and more long lasting than any technology or artifice to reset memories and thoughts. It was moving, elegiac, and powerful.

Preset shows us the foundation of that society, in a pair of time frames with the same set of characters. In the earliest time frame, we met the founder of the Four Cities, Eli, and his wife Eleanor. The world is falling apart, but both Eli and Eleanor are driven to find a place of their own, a place of their own. But there are cracks in the foundation of this power couple relationship. And one of those is the other person who has a lien on Eleanor’s heart, John

By contrast, in the second time frame of the novel, things have changed. The bombs have fallen, and the fate of the rest of the world is increasingly uncertain. But the strains of trying to hold a society together in the wake of the apocalypse has driven a permanent fracture between Eli and Eleanor, and Eleanor flees the autocracy of Eli over the cities to the Resistance...and, well, John. But becoming part of the Resistance, a Resistance that justifiably does not trust the wife of Eli. And of course, the Resistance has a Plan. As does Eleanor. And so does Eli.

And so this is a story of the early days of the Four Cities. The hallmarks of the utopian world of Reset are not here. In the first timeline, there is hope and promise that this can be a new life, a new start, a new future. It is very much showing how the ambition and relentless vision of Eli, and the strivings of Eleanor, shape what will come. It is a world, though, with the Sword hanging overhead, of the footsteps of an approaching doom, or wyrd, all the same. The second timeline is the early days of the Four Cities on their own. Eli has attempted to maintain control, to work toward his perfect society. But there are those who would topple the order he had made, who would resist what they see as his tyranny.

But there is much more going on than just these plot lines. Relationships, romantic and otherwise are a hallmark of Dahlan’s first novel, and overcoming the 4 year cycle of imposed forgetting is a major thread of that novel, in finding where the heart will take someone who only slowly learns to open her heart. This novel, by comparison, takes a different set of romantic relationship issues--the issues of staying with someone who is more addicted to their vision and their ideas than you and what you want, and then the costs of leaving such a relationship, only to find that the person whom your heart is settling on, now, has, in fact, moved on.

In many ways, this is a much more painful book. That is not to say that the first novel. Reset, lacks that poignancy, especially as Aris, and the reader, get a true sense of what is lost and the costs of the “four year memory wipe” that is at the center. That is seen as the rhythms of that world overthrown as the characters struggle to break a cycle that they are seemingly trapped in by the designs of their world.

Preset is not concerned with cycles, this is two time frames at the beginning of the story of the Four Cities. Preset is concerned with genesis and creation. (In point of fact, there is a “Project Genesis” within the novel, showing that the author was definitely putting a spotlight on this). There are concerns, in the second timeline, about the genesis, the creation of a world for the remnants of humanity to try and survive in. This is a prequel that is in many ways a much more traditional SF novel than Reset. Reset is like reading a recurring, waking dream, as the characters struggle to escape its cycle. Preset is concerned with the building of a new society, a new path, a new way forward, and how it is just the sacrifice of a relationship, in the end, that makes that society possible.

But this gets to the issue that I really want to dig into here, and that is the idea and issues around prequels themselves.

Prequels: What ARE they good for?

There is a school in writing that suggests that knowing when the story starts is an important factor in writing a story or a novel. Where is the important place for the story to start? Starting a story or a novel in the wrong place wrong-foots the writer, and ultimately the reader. The problem with many prequels is that a prequel, in effect, catapults the reader backward and decides that the story did not begin where the writer originally thought it did. And that foreknowledge of what will happen can weaken the narrative within the prequel itself. Either the prequel or the original book can then wind up being a pale imitation of the other, and thus in the end both books together are weaker than the original novel. This also works in movies as well, if one considers how the elf-dwarf romance (Tauriel-Kili) in the Hobbit movies absolutely cheapens the hard won friendship that Gimli and Legolas have to build, between two cultures that do not trust each other, in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Also there is a problem of overlapping a character with its prequel. It can for me as a reader feel stagnant to read the prequel to the novel I just read, just to have the character I enjoyed in the first novel, to have been pretty much who they are in the prequel, or a convoluted and jury rigged sequences of events is needed to mold a character into the character we see in the original novel. It feels more like a crossword puzzle than a novel, an attempt by the author to “get the character” to who they are in the original book. This frustrates me, too.

A prequel such as Preset, though, does avoid some of this blowback. By avoiding having such a wide gulf between the time frame of the first novel and the second novel, we get to see a very different sort of world. The utopia of the Four Cities, for all of its faults as seen in Reset, is a hard won thing, and in the two time frames are so removed from the first that the overlap of characters is just about not there. The characters of Eli and Eleanor are present in Reset, but in such a changed form (and so relatively briefly) that they really are new characters, tabula rasa for the author, to explore here in these pages.. But in Reset, the poignancy and tragedy of those two characters is established as a fact, and in Preset, we see just how that tragedy came out, in the creation of the Four Cities as its running concept in the original book.

In many ways, then, Preset depends on that last chapter of Reset in which we pull the camera back a bit, but that is somewhat unfair to readers and to the author. Preset creates the world of Reset and while there are hints and strains and the building blocks of the world of Reset are shown, it is in fact a very different story.

I do have a radical proposal for the reader who has not read either of these novels and is considering doing so. Upon reflection and thought (and a review of Reset), I think that these novels should be read in order of their internal chronology and not publication order. The story of Preset, is a tragedy of relationships and pain as the world breaks and the sacrifice of that relationship and how that relationship’s breaking ultimately creates the utopia that we then see in Reset. I am thinking especially here of the chapter in Reset which, in reading these two novels in “reverse order”, ultimately ties the original novel to its prequel second, and makes it a united whole.

But does this ultimately work? I am still uncertain and I have considered and reconsidered this question. For all of the underpinnings of character, romance and relationship that the novels share, depicting a utopia (however so very flawed) and depicting the creation of that utopia are completely different kinds of stories. I admire that sort of ambition in a writer. It shows range and a willingness to take a big risk.

But the question that comes back to me--is this book *necessary*? Is this a story ultimately that needed to be told. Eli and Eleanor and the fruit of the tragedy of their relationship, as seen in Reset - was it necessary to show and map out the contours of a story that is, in Reset, so very sketched out enough for the reader to fill in the gaps. I think the writer definitely wanted to explore this story and make it work. There is something rather mythic about these characters as seen in Reset (to the point of using mythic language in fact). The characters in Preset are all so very human, by comparison. Very flawed. Very prone to making mistakes. And that is part of the point.

Does this mean that this book is a story of apotheosis, in a sense, how these two flawed individuals together, despite themselves, create the world of Reset? A utopia that they themselves cannot really share, a world and future of their collaborative creation that they stand apart from and are by the needs and structures of their roles, can NEVER be a part of? Perhaps.

"Stories never live alone, they are the branches of a family that we have to trace back, and forward".

Roberto Calasso wrote that in the first pages of his fantastic look at Greek mythology, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. I know he might counsel you to read these in publication order, and trace the story backward. I still maintain that you, reader might want to follow my advice, and read them forward.

But in the end the point is that these novels are worth reading, and while Preset in many ways can be more pedestrian and less philosophical and reflective than Reset, it is a story worth having been told, and for you to read.


The Math

  • The painful building of utopia, at the cost of a relationship
  • Strong character beats and arcs spread across two timelines
  • But is it a necessary book compared to it’s first?
Dahlan, Sarina, Preset [Blackstone Publishing, 2023]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.