Brent Hayward’s Head Full of Mountains is hardly a beach book. As demanding as it is sometimes meandering, the tightly limited third-person perspective and the author’s utter banishment of exposition force the reader to connect the dots slowly and painstakingly. It can be quite rewarding when another piece of the puzzle in Hayward’s richly detailed (if almost entirely inferred) backstory slides into place. But it is a significant upfront investment of time and concentrated effort, which can be a tough call for an uncertain payoff.
A bit of a play on Walter Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz, or Robert Heinlein’s Universe, Hayward’s novel differentiates itself from a post-apocalyptic tale such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or any of a dozen recent zombie tales in literature, film, or interactive media, in that it’s not at all clear how the world ended up this way; it’s equally a mystery, to its inhabitants at least, how the world used to be.
Crospinal, the story’s protagonist, spent his entire life living within what may be the equivalent of a two block radius, with only his father, a mostly unconscious body on life support and hooked up to a local network, for company. Crospinal has never been outside, and doesn’t really know where he is in the grand scheme of things. Is he in a massive space ship, an underground base on a ruined planet, a former asteroid mine?
Hayward makes the point implicitly: With so little contextual overlap between Crospinal’s direct experience and theoretical knowledge and that of the reader, there’s no reason for us to expect this protagonist to make special note of the everyday aspects of his life that we might happen to find unusual. And Crospinal is in the same boat: As the passing of his father and the need for him to go out and explore the greater world reveals that the intelligent machines, various other groups of very different humans, even the holographic projections of distant individuals have such wildly differing perspectives from him, it’s a tremendous challenge for him to manage any meaningful communication at all.
These difficulties don’t come across as contrived. Crospinal really is trying very hard to make his meaning known, but shared context is crucial. Passengers, runners, sailors, crew: Each group has a different view on what the world is for, how they came to be there, and what human society should look like. Building up a picture of these other groups’ experiences is essentially equivalent to learning another language. It makes sense as a whole, but you can only acquire it by bits and pieces.
Some of the humans Crospinal meets make use of the technology embedded in every wall, capable of producing nutrient pills and chemically enhanced water. Nanotech uniform assembly stations and AI assistants are also available for any human to command, though the people relying on them are oblivious to the origins of these technological miracles. Others have gone back to nature, such as it is, refusing to use any technology to survive, apparently unaware that the very air they breathe is run through mechanized recyclers, the very temperature computer controlled.
And throughout, Crospinal wanders, trying to determine his place in the grand scheme of things, not fitting into any group, as confused to his purpose as every other lost soul he comes across, but lacking even their limited and corrupted historical and societal knowledge. (Though one wonders if he will be the one to put all the parts of the story back together.)
It’s curiosity over how the (possibly) last bastion of humanity got to be this way that will keep a reader turning the page. After all, there’s very little action for much of the novel. Crospinal doesn’t even leave his rooms until 50 or 60 pages in, spending his time up to that point sleeping, reminiscing, and speaking to himself. The surreal, uncertain tone established here continues throughout the book. There’s very little to anchor to since anything and everything is unfamiliar to both protagonist and reader, and it’s often difficult to tell when things are actually occurring and when the protagonist is dreaming.
Still, bit by bit, the world begins to coalesce: The setting we’ve been in from page one finally starts to appear in one’s mind’s eye. We learn the language of this world. And, throughout, some interesting questions are posed: What are we without our history? What’s intrinsic to being human, if anything? To put it another way, what’s left, if we forget everything? And what kind of disaster could destroy our collective memory? Or is the slow slide into dementia an unprecipitated and inevitable outcome for any culture that lives too long?
I’m not convinced even Hayward’s short novel needed so many pages to get his point across. The heavy atmosphere and ponderous pacing seemed a bit much at times. But I’m sure it was his goal to get inside his reader’s head, leave the sense of this place, the questions he poses, echoing in the days after putting the story down. And he achieves that.
J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Winnipeg Free Press, Care2 Causes, and, naturally, AE. He maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.