Reading in the Moment: Terry Carr’s Cirque (1977)

Some books, even great books, are destined to elude your grasp. You will go your entire life without reading them or even hearing their name. A book that could conceivably change your life, or simply allow you to disappear into a haze of literary delight, will remain on the shelves. But every now and then, by luck or fate, one of these books swims into your life, and you realize how easily you might have missed it. Clicking too quickly through a web page or not stopping to linger on a dusty bookshelf, and the moment would disappear—as would the book in question. For me, that’s exactly what happened when I found Terry Carr’s little masterpiece, Cirque (1977): I was browsing a used bookstore’s out-of-the-way science fiction section with my son, and had actually already found what I was looking for. So while he continued to sort through the Star Trek novels, I killed time by scanning the spines, now and then pulling a volume I just as quickly pushed back. Until I found Cirque. 

Admittedly, the cover is what got me. A very uniquely late 70’s, early 80’s science fiction cover, depicting an abstract head cracking open, with a blob-like brain emerging, sprouting tentacles and a cloud of light. A vague city appears on the man’s shoulders, and his face is covered in deep shadow, though you can just make out closed eyes and a nose. The cover reminded me of the science fiction magazines I used to read when I was a young teenager (Omni, especially), which was enough to make me flip through the book to sample a few sentences. His style passed my snob radar: well-written sentences, not too simple, uses semicolons and dashes (does anyone use them these days?). In short, it looked like a good investment for a few bucks.

I didn’t intend to read it at once, but something about the cover kept whispering to me across the room. I would constantly pick up the book, flip through it, put it down again, and then find some excuse to return an hour or so later. I quickly decided to read it. By the first page I knew it was a keeper. I immediately researched a little about the author, who I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of. Terry Carr was less a famous author than a famous editor, the man behind much of the science fiction published by Ace in the 60’s and 70’s, as well as a freelance anthologizer of science fiction and fantasy by some of the greatest authors in the genre. Indeed, he not only helped publish Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, but also encouraged Gibson to write Neuromancer. Someone so involved in the science fiction scene had to try his hand at a few books himself, and on the side, he wrote three novels: Warlord of Kor, Invasion from 2500, and Cirque. While the first two have been dismissed by some as pulp fiction (I can’t verify this one way or the other), Cirque is a truly foundational science fiction novel, fit to keep company with I, Robot, The Martian Chronicles, The Left Hand of Darkness, Starship Troopers, and City.

Two things make the book stand out among so much science fiction writing, past and present: first is the writing, which is succinct, yet stylish, with a true command of the language; second is the effortlessly way he tells a story, expanding the plot with fascinating characters and a breathless sense of drama. In a sense, nothing much happens—or at least, not as much as you might expect from the unique opening of the book. Yet by avoiding the traps of so many other “alien invasion” novels, Carr does something quite extraordinary with his story: he suggests that the invaders are what we make them, and that the darkness within is within every one of us, and not just in the “abyss” that we hide from at night.

The essence of the story is this: Earth has become a relative backwater following the exploration of space, with humanity finding new worlds and systems to thrive in. Only one city, Cirque, still draws tourists back to the home world for its unique topography: a great abyss—literally, a deep hole that sinks into the very depths of the earth—is the focal point of the city, through which no light emerges. The city is also known for its temples, one for every conceivable faith, which crowd at the edge of the abyss so that their worshippers can cast their sins into the blackness and be purged. As the story opens, a “millipede,” an intelligent alien from the Aldebaran system, has just arrived in Cirque to witness a momentous event. As he explains to the human who greets him, “Cirque comes to new life today.” The millipede’s race can see the future—or at least, the future as it concerns himself—as we look at a map. So he knows that this is where he needs to be to experience what will change him, and the city, forever.

Cirque is also unique for the way its inhabitants experience life: though they cannot see the future, they can richly experience the present much in the way of the modern internet. A gifted “monitor,” possessed of psychic powers, is able to scan the thoughts and experiences of all its citizens and project the ‘story’ of the day like a feed for everyone to experience. In this way, one person’s life becomes every person’s life, and the monitor, trained from his or her earliest years, is not a person as much as a receptacle for this shared experience. Unfortunately, the current monitor, a fifteen year-old named Annalie (a name she can only dimly remember) dramatically loses her ability to broadcast visions after a particularly traumatic vision: Salamander, the head priestess of the Cathedral of the Five Elements, has had a terrible ‘dream’ of confronting the Beast that lives deep within the Abyss...a beast composed of a millennia of discarded sins and offal of the citizens.

The Guardian of the city (like a police chief), Gloriana, and her lover, Jamie, are hovering over the abyss on a glider when they see something below...a strange form, a stray tentacle. This vision is then broadcast to the entire city, spreading interest and rumors. Gloriana returns with a ship which takes the unprecedented step of flying into the abyss to find these strange beings—if beings they were. She soon discovers an entire colony of blob-like, tentacled creatures that are thriving in the depths of the abyss. Fear spreads and Salamander is convinced that Cirque’s sins have finally amassed against them, demanding its tribute from a faithless population. And sure enough, the creatures soon begin emerging from the abyss, leading to a desperate campaign to drive them back—if it’s not already too late.

Added to the mix is another fascinating character, Nikki, a woman who struggles with body issues and tries to hide from herself by taking a popular pill that splits herself into multiple personalities. Throughout the day, she becomes Nikki-One (amorous, playful), Nikki-Two (shy, demure), Nikki-Three (aggressive, cynical), and Nikki-Four (enthusiastic, energetic). Nikki-One decides to go out and see the new arrival to Cirque, the millipede, but soon runs into a teacher and his students on the same mission. As her current lover, Gregorian (a fire sculptor—an important job in the temples) has lost interest in her, she soon strikes up a friendship with the teacher, Jordan, and his prize pupil, Robin, a saucy little girl who is studying “speaking in negatives.” Unfortunately, Nikki-Three soon emerges and dashes her chances at romance, as this self hates the teacher and anything to do with the millipede and the temples. Out of spite, she finds a way to take Robin with her on a dangerous boat ride which leads to the center of the mystery at Cirque.

The novel reaches its climax as all the characters converge on Salamander’s temple to witness the arrival of the Beast. Annelie, the Monitor, is close to dying from her previous vision and has lost her gift of sight. Yet she has found beauty in being ‘normal,’ and is ready to renounce her calling. Nikki starts to make peace with her selves (and her self) and offers new insight on the ‘creature’ coming to meet them. And Salamander, the priestess, has found a way to save the entire city from a fiery retribution at the hands of the Beast. Yet nothing turns out quite as they expect, and certainly not as the reader expects...this would-be Lovecraftian horror is not Cthulu reborn, or some savage slug from beyond the stars. But saying anything more would be spoiling the surprise for the reader.

In many ways, the story, though wonderful, is beside the point. This is a philosophical novel, but one cleverly disguised in the characters and the story. One of Carr’s chief interests is how we experience the world, both through our human limitations and though time itself. What is time, and is our human way of recording the world the only way of knowing? The millipede is gently critical of Cirque’s illusion of knowledge, where everyone shares one another’s visions: “Seeing through someone else’s eyes is not truly seeing, I believe,” he tells them. This seems wonderfully appropriate to our internet world, where we attend protests virtually and watch the world unfold online. But is this lived experience? Do we learn from it? In the same way, we’re obsessed with what is happening now, and spend much of our time assuming how now will lead to then. But what if we knew what then was before it happened? How would it change our now?

Again, the millipede suggests, “You spend too much time guessing about the future, worrying or hoping. Races who know what is to come concentrate totally on what is happening at the moment.” Imagine this: when you watch a movie you’ve seen a few times before, you don’t speculate on what might happen—or worry about who will die and how. Instead, you focus on how it happened and study the subtle interactions of the characters, the setting, even the score. Nabokov said that good reading was re-reading, just as watching a movie requires multiple viewings to really see and understand it. What if life could be experienced the same way? Not as an endless exercise in anticipation but in understanding? And even if we can’t see the future, couldn’t we study the present in the knowledge that it will unfold as it must, without us trying to control and shape it through a mathematical cause and effect?

This idea extends to how we shape the world around us, both in time and in art. Gregorian, the fire sculptor, assumes that he gives life to fire and has become its master. But Salamander chides him that fire is not made but exists independently of him and of us. As she explains, “you have not created fire; it exists without you and has existed since before thought came into the world...before humans could write records, Fire existed. Before humans came to be, Fire existed.” A not-so subtle reminder that we are also tools in a universe not of our own making. We can guide and shape, but never truly create. This would be like the pencil thinking it draws the picture, or the keyboard believing it writes the book. The humility that comes from seeing one’s place in the cosmos, or even in the creative process, comes from a different perspective of place and time.

Not surprisingly, this book is also largely about identity: who are we, if we’re not really the authors of our own personas? Annelie was born to be a Monitor, and can no longer remember her identity apart from it, nor the names of the Monitors who came before. Nikki cannot recall who she was before Gregorian, or who she is other than  “fat” girl. Gloriana buries herself in her work as a Guardian, terrified to admit that she loves Jamie or could ever marry him. And even Salamander has become an embodiment of her religious role, a seer instead of an individual soul. By learning to see themselves, or what they can possibly become, they also learn to see the terrible threat from the Abyss. Is darkness truly ‘dark’ merely because it lacks light? Is a monster monstrous solely because it seems to mock human ‘perfection’? Of all the characters, the millipede alone seems to think that the world will change for the better after the Beast emerges from the Abyss. None of the characters believe him...but maybe we’re too busy predicting the future rather than studying the present?

Though Cirque is out of print, you can find digital copies on Amazon or perhaps a well-loved copy in your local used bookstore. I cannot recommend it highly enough, all the more so since it’s a very quick read—barely 200 pages, and they go by in a shot. You’ll hardly have time to anticipate what the future will be like before you’re there—and at the end of the book.