Review of “Magisterium” by Jeff Hirsch

Note: There are no spoilers except a few in the Discussion section, which you should skip if you want to avoid them.

Glennora (“Glenn”) Morgan is 16, and lives alone with her brilliant, eccentric scientist father near the border (or “Rift”) between their world, known as The Colloquium, and the post-nuclear-devastated wilderness beyond it. Glenn’s mother left her and her father, suddenly and with no explanation, ten years earlier, on Glenn’s sixth birthday. Her father spends all his time tinkering in his workshop on a secret “project,” hardly taking time even to eat in his eagerness to accomplish whatever it is he is doing.

Glenn has dreams of her own to occupy her. In the 130 years since the holocaust, the Colloquium has made massive scientific and technological advancements. Glenn is particularly eager to be accepted as part of the research outpost on Planet 813, and thinks she has a good chance, since she has no trouble quickly assimilating all the math and science necessary for acceptance.

Glenn’s only friend, the equally “nerdy” (read: smart) Kevin Kapoor, doesn’t want her to leave. They are close, even though they constantly fight about what is really on the other side of the Rift. Rumors abound that there is actually an entire civilization on the other side and it is fundamentally different from theirs; Glenn dismisses these rumors as foolish, but Kevin thinks they could be true. Even Glenn’s father sides with Kevin: he tries to explain to Glenn that she should think of reality as a set of playing cards:

The cards are always the same – King, Queen, Ace, Jack – but the game you play changes depending on what set of rules you decide to invoke. Use one set of rules and you’re playing poker. Choose another and you have solitaire. What we think of as reality is no different. It’s a card game. Change the rules and you change reality.”

Glenn has a chance to find this out for herself. Her father finishes his project, describing it to Glenn, and Glenn thinks he has gone totally crazy. She reports him to Kevin’s father, a psychologist who works for the government, and Dr. Kapoor in turn contacts the “Authority.” Suddenly Glenn and her father are running for their lives, along with Kevin, who would never leave Glenn. Glenn soon discovers what Hamlet contended to Horatio long ago:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Discussion:

ALERT! Mild spoilers ahead! Skip to the Evaluation Section if you want to avoid them!

Hirsch has come up with a clever premise – a sort of a reification of the epistemological divide. But I didn’t buy into all aspects of the execution of his idea.

In his post-apocalyptic universe, one side of the world is dominated by scientific thinking, and the other by non-empirical ways of knowing about the world. Both develop along lines suggested by the outgrowth of their dominant knowledge theories. In The Colloquium, empiricism and its focus on externality lead to great advances in technology. In The Magisterium, a more phenomenological approach (by which meaning is derived from inner subjectivity and perceptions as well as intersubjective engagement with others and the environment) results in the development of extra-sensory capabilities. Combined with the aftereffects of the post-apocalyptic radiation [which inexplicably affected one side of the world but not another], the magical abilities of the denizens of The Magisterium are manifested by different life forms as well. But some of the preternatural images seem bizarrely juvenile – more the result of mimicking children’s fairy tales than of any probable outcomes. And sometimes I thought Hirsch got carried away, throwing in fantastical asides that didn’t fit into his paradigm.

The other thing that put me off was the character of Glenn. First of all, as in another recent book that portrayed scientists as rigid and blind to nuance (see my review of Origin), Glenn is totally hostile to new ideas, an attitude that would be anathema to an actual scientist.

Secondly, besides the fact that Glenn is identified as really smart by other characters, to me she seemed Too Stupid To Live. Time and again she puts the lives of everyone around her in danger because of she refuses to acknowledge anything but her own interpretation of what is going on, even in the absence of any information whatsoever. She is also naïve to the point of absurdity. Kevin is only slightly better. After a while, the stickies I used to mark “Too Stupid To Live” were far outnumbering the ones indicating character names or other aspects of the plot I wanted to remember.

Evaluation: The premise of this book is in some ways very clever, and in some ways inconsistent and overdrawn. The book is mixed in other ways as well. The main protagonist, Glenn, is at the same time profoundly both naive and immature, but also strong and confident beyond her years; that combination seems a bit bizarre to me. As for the villains, most are wincingly cardboardy, but the wonderful mixture of good and bad that is Aamon makes him an outstanding character.

In short, I found this book a mixed bag. I’m all for salmagundis in food, but generally not so much a fan of it in books.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc., 2012

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9 Responses

  1. I think I’ll skip this one since it’s out of my comfort zone and you didn’t love it.

  2. Maybe the author tried to do too much?

  3. I wasn’t going to read past the spoiler alert, but the fact that the other comments indicated that you didn’t like it made me do just that. I think it does really sound like a mixed bag, and that the author took a little too much liberty with his plot and characters. I don’t like it when characters are atypical in the ways you’ve described this protagonist to be, and so I think I will steer clear of this one. Excellent review today though. Once again, you’ve outdone yourself!

  4. 2.5? moving on…moving on…

  5. Not reading this one!

  6. Hummm. I think I’ll pass….

  7. When you mention a mixed bag and 2.5 rating I know immediately that this isn’t one for me!!

  8. So am I the only one that had to look up salmagundis? :) Definitely going to pass on this one!

  9. I skipped the spoiler parts because I do plan to read this eventually but I’m disappointed that it wasn’t too great. :(

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