What They Say
A dazzling look at Mayan mythology incarnate from New York Times bestselling author Steve Alten
For two thousand years, the Mayan Calendar has prophesied the end of mankind on a date equating to December 21st, 2012. As that day approaches, greed, corruption, economic collapse, and violence seem to be pushing our species to the predicted brink of disaster. But there is another Doomsday threat looming in our near future, a very real threat that can wipe-out not only humanity but our entire planet.
Phobos: Mayan Fear, Steve Alten’s third book in the Mayan Prophecy series, is a doomsday rollercoaster ride of adventure that follows Immanuel Gabriel to the end of the world and back again for one last shot at salvation. During Immanuel’s journey with his deceased grandfather, archaeologist Julius Gabriel, Julius reveals everything the Mayans knew and feared—from the secrets of creation that predate the Big Bang to the existence of extraterrestrials that have come to Earth to save our species.
The universe is not what it seems, nor is human existence. The ticking clock of physicality that begins at conception and terminates with our final breath is neither the end nor the beginning, but an elaborate ruse constructed as a test.
We are failing miserably.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
Phobos: Mayan Fear by Steve Alten seems like a book that would be right up my alley. I love science fiction, anthropology, and classic myth stories; Phobos has them all in spades. The problem is that the plot is so thick and complex, it is often very easy to get bogged down in the details. It’s admittedly taken me three or four months to write this review because I had to read it through a few times to make sure I had a full understanding of it. I stopped after three, and I’m still not sure I have it all.
Now, this isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy Phobos; far from it in fact. I don’t invest multiple months and read-throughs in a book I don’t enjoy. It is just that Phobos has four (or five depending on your count) different stories happening within it that it keeps jumping back and forth between so that a full picture can be told. It’s an odd narrative structure that took me a long time to wrap my head around.
For the interest of full disclosure, Phobos is the third book of Alten’s Mayan Prophecy series that centers around the Mayan belief in the 2012 apocalypse (the first came in 2001, so he was ahead of the game in terms of current interest in it), and I have not actually read the first two, so some of my confusion might come from the fact that I might have been missing some context, but Phobos is its own complete novel, so I feel comfortable treating it as an independent piece.
Phobos tells the story of Immanuel Gabriel, the twin brother of Jacob and a member of a higher order of humanity the Mayans classified as the Hunahpu. Aside from greater degrees of intelligence and physical prowess, the Hunahpu also have the ability to tap into the Nexus, a higher degree of reality that slows down time, augments their already formidable powers, and allows them to read the future. Jacob is the quintessential Hunahpu; Immanuel is not. Where Jacob is adept at using the Nexus and more than willing to use it to help, Immanuel is neither. Jacob is happy to lead and live for the people, Immanuel just wants to be left alone. It’s a classic twin syndrome.
The past few generations of Gabriels have concerned themselves with preventing the upcoming Mayan apocalypse as their research has concluded that it is going to happen. But rather than an external source of destruction coming to wipe us all out, humanity’s ego has sown the seeds of our doom in the form of the Large Hadron Collider. The purpose of the LHC is to recreate the conditions prior to the Big Bang so that it can be studied, with the belief that any singularities created will not be stable enough to exist for more than a nanosecond. The fear, of course, is that under the exact right conditions, a singularity can stabilize, creating a man-made black hole that will engulf the Earth and surrounding area. Unbeknownst to researchers, the LHC has done exactly this.
This is where Immanuel comes in. The Gabriels before him have laid out the foundation for Jacob and Immanuel to take their rightful roles in the prophecy and lead humanity to salvation before the event. Unfortunately, Immanuel is the typical “lesser” twin and screws it all up for his own selfish reasons. While Jacob embraced his destiny, Immanuel (embittered by the assassination of his girlfriend) opted to stay behind on Earth and life his own life.
Unfortunately for him, this decision has changed the outlook of the prophecy, which now focuses solely on him and which he can no longer ignore. It has also made him the target for every agency and group looking to harness his powers and/or prevent him from stopping them. The question becomes whether or not he can avoid his pursuers long enough to discover his new destiny and prevent the imminent destruction of the planet.
The thing I loved about Phobos is the way that Alten draws upon so many different belief and scientific systems, picking and choosing what works for him, and building a reality that works for his story. While much of the apocalypse myth is drawn from Mayan beliefs, he also ties in plenty from the Judeo-Christian school of thought and wraps it all up in a healthy amount of science.
And believe me, when I say healthy amount, I mean it. Phobos is hard sci-fi and Alten’s characters spend a lot of time sitting around and discussion exactly how the science behind everything is working out. That’s the first part of this book that made my head spin. I’m not exactly up on my sciences, but I can generally follow a process or theory from one end to the other, but Alten often left me lost in his discussions. That’s not necessarily a problem, just an observation.
But the biggest issue I had was all of the converging plots. The summary I gave above concerns the main plot. There is a parallel plot involving Chilam Balam, the Mayan prophet and leader responsible for the doom prophecy. In the Mayan times, Balam faces increased scrutiny for his leadership as he laid out his prophecies, much due to the instigation of another Mayan councilman, Seven Macaw. Seven Macaw covets Balam’s role as leader, and does what he can to instigate his downfall. Immanuel’s and Balam’s stories mirror each other in a lot of ways, particularly when it is revealed that Immanuel embodies Balam’s spirit, so by learning more of what Balam was forced to go through, it helps to add context to Immanuel’s quest.
If it was just the two plotlines, that’d be fine; however, there are also the random interjections of Julius Gabriel’s (Immanuel’s grandfather) research notes, depositions given by witnesses to extraterrestrial events, and articles from research journals and newspapers. This ultimate result gives us two more plots to follow as we a) eventually can piece together Julius’s life and learn how it pertains to what is happening now, and b) we get an overall worldview of everything surrounding our protagonist. The way the plotline bounces back and forth between these four different stories is very confusing for a long time.
But what’s neat is how well it all comes together down the stretch, especially when you consider the events of the midpoint of the book. To be as spoiler-free as possible, the middle of the book has a series of events that sees Immanuel travel into the past before he was born and spend time with his grandfather and father. His presence in the past changes many things, meaning that everything we knew before is now wrong (and now adding a semi-fifth plotline).
Somehow, though, as the second half of the book plays out, Alten brings it all together. I don’t really know how to explain it, because it was like a lightbulb went off in my head. But for two hundred or so pages, I was lost. Then, suddenly, it all made sense. I could see the patterns emerging that I was missing before, and I could see how it was all coming together and why Alten made the choices that he did for his narrative structure.
And that’s why I wanted to read it a second (and third) time. I wanted to revisit the areas I didn’t understand before and see if I could understand them now. The end result? Sort of. The science is still a bit thick for me, and the sheer amount of characters to keep track of continued to be a problem, but the plot threads and patterns emerged better for me. And as far as I am concerned, if you can keep me confused and yet still wanting more, then you have succeeded.
Phobos: Mayan Fear was a novel I had some difficulty with on first read-through, but it was interesting enough that I read it through a few times more to see if that cleared up my confusion. In some ways yes, but in some ways no. I enjoyed my time with it and will probably now go back and work on the first two books. But my recommendation is tempered: it’s a good book if you put in the time with it, but only if you put in the time. If you want a light read, then go find something else, because you won’t find it here. Phobos demands your attention, and you’ll be lost if you don’t give it. But if you do, then it should be worth your while.
Content Grade: B+
Readers Rating: [ratings]
Published By: Tor
Release Date: October 11, 2011