Visions of Paradise

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Rosetta Codex

Sometimes a novel with a horrendous title can actually conceal a small gem inside. Richard Paul Russo’s The Rosetta Codex is obviously a title intended to remind people of The DaVinci Code, so I had visions of bogus scientists chasing some elusive nonsensical historical mystery. But the novel got very strong reviews when it was released, and some of them intrigued me about what was basically a far-future historical mystery.

Cole is a five-year old boy accompanying his father on a dangerous interstellar mission. When their ship is attacked in orbit around a planet, his father places Cole and his caretaker Sidonie onto a shuttle and sends them to the planet’s largest city Morningstar where Cole’s uncle lives. But the shuttle never reaches the city, instead crashing on the other side of the Divide. The Divide is an immense trench similar to the Grand Canyon which can only be crossed by two bridges. On one side lives the majority of the planet’s population; on the other side are criminals and political dissidents who were exiled there by the authorities. Exiles and their immediate first generation descendants are forbidden to recross the bridges. Anybody else may cross in either direction.

After the crash, Cole is found by a group of criminals who rape and kill Sidonie, then take Cole as a slave. Eventually Cole escapes, but he ends up in a community which treats him only slightly better: he is still a slave, but at least he is not beaten regularly. His only friend is a traveling trader named Blackburn who takes a liking to Cole, and each time he passes through he tries to convince Cole to accompany him. Having been burned nearly his entire life, Cole is naturally suspicious of any friendship and rejects the invitation.

Eventually Cole makes the mistake of falling in love with the daughter of one of the community leaders. He is beaten and exiled from the community. He spends the next few years traveling alone through the land of the exiles, finding some people who are considerably nicer than those with whom he lived. He finds an anchorite, a woman living a solitary religious life as a hermit; a community of Resurrectionists seeking an ancient race of aliens who supposedly lived on the planet millennia ago; and a strange pair of an elderly man and his simpleton brother who has visions of the future, one of which seemingly involves Cole.

Eventually Cole crosses the Divide and reaches Morningstar where he finds Sidonie who amazingly survived the crash and subsequent beatings, and has been seeking Cole ever since. He falls in with a group of Resurrectionists who believe that the aliens’ ancient city lies beneath the surface of Morningstar. And Sidonie tells Cole that his family was very powerful on their homeworld. Eventually they both leave the planet and return to claim his legacy.

The Rosetta Codex is a strong novel which combines Cole’s coming-of-age with the quest of the Resurrectionists. Cole stumbles onto the key to the aliens’ disappearance, which is the Rosetta Codex of the title, so he undertakes the quest himself. The latter half reads like an outtake from a Jack McDevitt novel as the quest heads through space, where Cole’s group is pursued by a group of human-cyborgs who seek the aliens for their own purposes. Eventually, the quest is successful, which pleased me since I have grown a bit tired of endless series of novels which seek lost aliens but never actually find them (such as Frederik Pohl’s Gateway series).

The weakest part of The Rosetta Codex is the codex itself whose very purpose is illogical. It was created by the aliens to enable humans to resuscitate the entire alien race. But the codex was hidden so that first humans had to find it, then decipher it, and finally follow its directions. I cannot imagine any less logical way for a superior race to resuscitate itself, nor why that was even necessary since the entire alien race seems to have died in an orderly fashion, with thousands of bodies placed in an endless series of coffins in a silo holding interstellar spaceships. Surely such an advanced race would have done something to save itself more logical, and less subject to the luck of whoever found their secret instructions? This whole portion of the novel was more of a construct for the reader’s sake than any logical development from what was otherwise a smart and sensible novel set in a well-developed universe.

About two-thirds the way through The Rosetta Codex, I thought it was going to be a great novel on the level of The Etched City or Perdito Street Station, two of my favorite novels of the past decade. But the codex ruined a bit of the novel for me, although that logical flaw is its only failing, and I still enjoyed reading it tremendously. I just cannot recommend it as unconditionally as I had anticipated doing.


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