Tunnel Out of Death by Jamil Nasir (Tor/Forge) is a tale of multiple universes and realities, science fiction, time travel, and other themes that fans of Philip K. Dick’s novels, like myself, enjoy reading. These are time-tested subjects of some of the best fiction, not to mention, science fiction, of all time. How does Nasir handle these themes in Tunnel Out of Death?
Very well, though not all reviews of Tunnel Out of Death agree with my assessment.
What is Tunnel Out of Death about?
The protagonist of Nasir’s novel is Heathcliff (Heath) Ransom. Ransom is a private investigator and an “endovoyant” who utilizes his abilities to interpret psychic emanations and roam around on the astral plane, all for sake and the money of his wealthy clients.
He and the rest of the characters in Tunnel Out of Death live in a future in which everything has been privatized. The government is known as USAdmin, and it has its own sinister self-interests at stake.
Ransom is good at his job, very good — and he’s not lacking in clients. Though he’s already got a full slate of cases, the one that he’s offered by the Merrivales is one he finds impossible to turn down.
They hire Heath Ransom to locate the consciousness of their comatose, elderly aunt Margaret Biel, and they agree to pay Ransom handsomely, even if he fails. Ransom has never tried to bring anyone back from out of a coma or the land of the dead before, so he doesn’t hold out much hope to the Merrivales; but, he takes their case, and pushes all of his other cases to the back burners.
Ransom uses an isolation tank to assist him in projecting his psyche into an etheric world where he senses via smell, like a bloodhound, Margaret Biel’s trail. He locates her at various ages in her life — she tries to seduce him in a couple of them — and then, he loses her scent for awhile, as each reality collapses in upon itself.
Ransom fears that collapsing and other signs are indications that Margaret is slipping further towards death, and that he might not be able to retrieve her consciousness successfully.
That turns out to be the least of his worries. Margaret has become a pawn of a religious organization that offers its adherents eternal life in beautiful new bodies — for a price. Thing is, these people, or aliens, play for keeps, and will go to any lengths to keep their secrets a secret.
In the Other World, Ransom tracks Margaret down to a different version of Italy. She has occupied the body of a young woman, and he sees her injecting her boyfriend, Michael. with a hypodermic needle, in an attempt to kill him.
Ransom can’t lift anything in his etheric state — he’s basically like a ghost. Michael’s essence gets yanked from his body, and Ransom tries to hold him and stop him from leaving his body and dying. A tunnel opens up, and threatens to engulf and swallow both of them.
Somehow, Ransom finds himself inside the body of Michael. He’s been apparently unable to rescue the young man’s spiritual essence. His — Michael’s — re-emergence into the land of the living is quite a shock to Margaret. She believes that she’s failed in carrying out the murder, which she’s been ordered to accomplish, and she is afraid that she will be severely punished for her failure.
He is taken to see a doctor by the owners of the villa he’s awoken in, and he tells them he’s seen Michael’s girlfriend trying to murder him. The owners of the villa think he’s gone crazy or has been affected by the drugs, and even the doctor they take him to thinks he might have brain damage, and that it will take some time before he ever gets back to a semblance of normality.
What’s more, Ransom reads in a newspaper and hears from the media that there’s been a raid where he’d worked, and that everyone there had been killed — including himself.
Heath tries to go back to where he used to work, though he’s now in Michael’s body. There is only an empty lot there, and no one seems to recall there ever having been any building there.
Ranson can’t retrieve himself back to his own world, and even if he could, he’s afraid he might not have a body to go back into, if the reports he’d read and heard were true.
Also, he is very worried that, if there is some clandestine, extremely powerful organization that’s behind his winding up where he is, they might decide to finish what they started, and kill him once and for all.
Has Heath gone crazy? Which of his existences is real? Is he actually someone called Michael, who imagines that he once was someone called Heath Ransom; or, are his memories actually true?
Jamil Nasir has explored these themes in his previous novels, like The Houses of Time and 2008. Some critics have said in their reviews that the plot of Nasir’s latest, Tunnel Out of Death, doesn’t go anywhere fast, that it gets bogged down, and though it has its good moments, on the whole it’s difficult to get into and isn’t as entertaining as Philip K. Dick’s novels which explore similar ideas.
Though these critics have their points, I wasn’t bothered by the novel’s relatively slow beginning. Tunnel Out of Death by Jamil Nasir is an exquisitely layered story about a man who falls through a tear in the very fabric of reality, who then struggles to find a way back to his old life.
If you like conspiracy stories, tales of secret government agencies battling across various ethereal planes, Tunnel Out of Death is the book for you.
Written by: Douglas Cobb