The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering
Jeffrey Rotter
(Metropolitan Books)
The future America of Rotter's dystopian fantasy is bleak, brutal and ignorant, a corporatist world controlled by huge conglomerates and quasi-feudal oligarchies ruling over a vast barren terrain of swamps and overheated lands, ruins and crumbling infrastructure.

Education consists of vocational training for mindless, menial labor; there are no academics, no science, no history, just a cobbled together mythology recalling the last inept, corrupt government, the "Gunt," and the ancient Chiefs who brought a measure of stability by banning the Jesus Lovers, the Astronomers and other delusional cults. The Jesus Lovers proved to be resilient, you still see their lowercase "t" scratched on fenceposts with a ten-dollar nail. But the Astronomers went off quietly and without leaving a trace or sign. Forget Nicolaus Copernicus, the stars are believed to be blemishes in the night glass of the sky and the Earth is again the center of the universe.

Most people live lives much like that of the Van Zandts. Rowan lives with his twin brother, Faron, their hardworking mom, Umma, and muscle-bound dad, Pop, in an area of typical urban violence and general dreariness: a factory dormitory for Airplane Food, a vast processing plant where Pop spends his shifts cracking eggs for plates of ready-made airplane food. That is until he kills a threatening little thug named I Murder, by throwing him into a vat of boiling eggs.

Pop is sentenced to a long stretch in the sugarcane fields of the Cuba Pens. So Umma packs up the family and moves them down through Floriday on the Dixie Highway past Hiya City, Old Miamy and the Miamy Ruins to The Gables, "the furthest south a free person could live," and as close to Pop as she could get.

Where Rowan is bookish, quiet and fearful of the world, his fraternal twin Faron is brash, strong and impetuous and involves his brother in a juvenile prank that turns seriously bad. It appears that they, too, will be incarcerated and the family will never be reunited. Then a smooth Bosom Industries functionary named Terry Nguyen visits Umma to make an extraordinary offer: he'll reunite the family and grant amnesty if they will "volunteer" to be part of a crew to test the Orion spaceship, recently discovered in a long-buried vault underneath Cape Cannibal, along with a horde of ancient NASA manuals.

After some hesitation, Umma agrees to the terms. The Van Zandts are shipped off to train at the long abandoned launch pad along with Bill and Mae Reade, actual, albeit larcenous, pilots from Canaday and their winsome daughter, Sylvia. It doesn't go well; Umma commits suicide, Pop comes unglued and Rowan helps Faron and Sylvia hijack the craft a day before the scheduled launch. As the Orion roars toward the Jupiter moon Europa, Rowan goes on the lam to avoid the wrath of Terry Nguyen.

His road trip turns into a not quite tedious odyssey through Californdulia and Arizone, he visits observatories such as Mount Wilson and Lowell, historical landmarks in a culture ignorant of, even hostile to astronomical knowledge. He falls in with a secret cell of the Copernican League, a ragtag group of misfits who share a thirst for knowledge of the stars. Finally in the Atacama Desert of Chilly they discover the long-suppressed device that has the potential to liberate humanity: a working telescope.

A wry depiction of a cornpone-accented dystopia, Words might also be seen as criticism of our neglect of space exploration and the anti-scientific attitudes that are too frequently encountered today.

--- Warren Sharpe
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