io9 recently ran a post called “10 Debut Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels that Took the World By Storm.” Reading through the list, one in particular stood out, mostly because I almost never see critical references to it, despite it being a very good novel. I’m talking about Chthon by Piers Anthony. My first attempts at reading the novel were sometime in the mid-1980s when I got the paperback edition as part of a giveaway. It was packaged with another Anthony book that I bought. My first few attempts at the novel failed and I told myself it was because it wasn’t a very good novel. Looking back on it, I think they failed because I wasn’t a very good reader.
Years later, when I had matured in my reading somewhat, I did read the novel and I thought it was terrific. My early problem with it is that it is a highly complex novel in its structure. It is told in three different times, present, past and future and that can be a bit confusing. In his autobiography, Bio of an Ogre, Anthony writes of the novel (circa 1988):
I believe that Chthon is the most intricately structured novel the genre has produced, and this should have been it’s primary claim to fame.
It is structured like a double hexagon, with six major parts, each split into paired sections: one describing the novel’s present, the other describing a different time. The dates are indicated by the “section” symbol, §, and the “present” is §400. That is, 400 years after the emergence of man into space. The first three parts over §381, §398, and §399, and the last three parts cover §401, §402, and §403. Thus the novel starts and finishes in the present §400, with three major flashbacks and three major flashforwards in between.
Anthony goes on to describe additional inner complexity to the structure. Rereading his description of the structure just now makes it sound supremely complex–and yet it does make for a good novel and it makes sense as the story unfolds, as a good story should. I might quibble with his premise that it was the most intricately structured novel the genre has produced. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar is also a structurally complex novel.
Piers Anthony is known primarily for his Xanth novels and that can make his work come off as overly commercial. But there were a number of novels and short stories he wrote, most of them before he started Xanth in the late 1970s that are worthy of critical recognition. In addition to Chthon, his novel Macroscope was very good, possible the best of anything he has done. I believe that made the Hugo ballot the same year as The Left Hand of Darkness.
Other novels in the list included Frankenstein, The Demolished Man, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Neuromancer, The Cipher, Sarah Canary, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and The Windup Girl. But I wanted to call out Piers Anthony’s debut novel because I was happen to see it get some of the attention it deserves.