Set in the opening decade of the current millennium, Elliot Ackerman’s Halcyon is a tale based on many alternative historical events—most notably, that Al Gore won the 2000 election, oversaw the capture of Osama bin Laden shortly after the 9/11 attacks, declined to launch into the Iraq conflict, and, most relevantly, funded advanced medical research that made possible the book’s central premise: the ability to revivify the dead.
Ackerman’s protagonist, Civil War historian Martin Neumann, wades into the conflicted lives of one family whose patriarch has chosen to avail himself of this medical resurrection and its supposed benefits. That man, Robert Ableson, a retired Virginia attorney and owner of the property for which the book is named, befriends Martin—who is taking a sabbatical at a cottage on the Halcyon grounds—drawing him unwittingly into the events that will unfold.
In a satisfying way, the story wholly avoids the obviously available sci-fi take on its subject matter—in fact, the characters, as they learn of what Ableson has done, take in the development with strangely little reaction. Rather, the novel explores the philosophical and personal implications of a world in which the dead can be brought back to life, resulting in a worthwhile meditation on what humans owe each other in life and in dying, and how the living account for death itself.
Given that the author steers his story this way, it is surprising how lightly he touches on religious themes and questions. There is a passing reference to Ableson’s general view on the subject, in that he allows for God’s existence based on the logic of Pascal’s famous wager: “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.” Of course, it is much more important to the story that he follows this same line of thinking when taking his chance with science. Neumann thinks of this parallel explicitly: “I now understood … [Ableson had] made not only religious arrangements for his death but also scientific ones. And it seemed the scientific arrangements had paid off.” Much of the plot, unsurprisingly, revolves around whether and how these arrangements did, in fact, “pay off”—and there are far more negative consequences than anticipated—for Ableson’s wife, three children, old friends and colleagues, and even his recent acquaintance Neumann.
Thus, while no other explicitly religious themes are discussed as the plot unfolds, the moral implications of a fictional world populated by people who could and would choose medical resurrection are constantly being weighed. Discussing a situation in which his daughter had narrowly avoided death, Ableson himself states: “Had she died, she believes she would’ve died for no reason. But having lived, she’s often felt she lived for no reason too. What does anything matter when it can all be arbitrarily swept away?” There’s added poignancy to that observation, given the arbitrariness lent to both life and death in a world in which scientific resurrection is possible.
In the real world, even without religion, death gives life meaning by suffusing it with the urgency presented by a looming finality. For the religious, there is a similar urgency lent by a finality of a different kind, for it is not an ultimate end that will be faced but rather a passage, a judgment, a joining with a destiny for which earthly life is lived. In this way, for them, it is not only true that death gives life meaning but also that—unlike for their non-believing counterparts—life gives death meaning. The novel (perhaps unintentionally) plays on this, as the key scientific advancement in the story is nothing short of resurrection itself, the very thing that Christians believe makes the passage through, or event of, death so specifically meaningful. Critically, though, Halcyon’s resurrection is one without salvation, meaning it inherently lacks ultimate rewards, and the story based upon it consequently must leave the implications of such rewards unexplored.
This being the case, the novel pays much more attention to other themes, and history is foremost among them. This is, after all, a story that features a world shaped by an alternative past, featuring a protagonist that is a historian. As if to set the stage for all that is to come, our narrator, Neumann, ponders at the outset of the book “what … were the minor events of today that would forever change the trajectory of the future” while contemplating some of the very alternative historical developments built into the plot. This has the effect of calling the reader’s attention not only to the ripples extending out in time from the seemingly mundane events of contemporary life but also the precariousness of lives and their trajectories. Not coincidentally, the characters of the book, most especially the Ableson family, are impacted by the precariousness inherent in the natural order as much as they are by Robert Ableson’s attempt to defy that order.
Laced throughout this tale is Neumann’s own struggle with history as a professional endeavor. It’s a struggle brought into sharp relief by another plotline: a movement to remove a Confederate monument from the Gettysburg battlefield. The controversy over the subject animates many characters and creates divisions between them, but for Neumann, the Civil War historian, the issue is more than a mere social or political question of the day. A colleague who supports the statue’s removal believes that “history had to remain forward looking; only through the consistent, harsh gaze of the present could we properly judge the past,” but Martin feels differently. In the tradition of his idol, the southern historian Shelby Foote, Martin’s academic and intellectual focus is that of social compromise: how the failure to reach it resulted in the war, how the ability to embrace it helped the country heal afterward, and how the lessons of both could be applied to contemporary society. To Neumann, so much of the statue-removal movement smacks not only of an unwillingness to compromise but also of an attempt to erase the actual events and people of the past.
The controversy leaves Martin feeling isolated, conflicted, and ambivalent about the thrust of his academic career. It’s an ennui not helped by the questions raised by Ableson’s resurrection, which forces everyone to reconsider the straight line of history and the nature of humanity’s compromise with the limitations of a lifespan. “Never forget,” the fictional version of Foote had once inscribed in a book for the young Neumann, “history is what the living think of the dead.” But the arc of Robert Ableson’s life directly threatens that very formulation, because he simply refuses to die.
The fantastical nature of that man’s resurrection notwithstanding, then, the story leaves the readers with much to consider in terms of their own views on the meaning of history, the trajectory of life, and the implications of death. “This is about time and who owns it,” says one character, in summary of an unfolding plotline in the novel. So, who owns time? For those who hope for resurrection without salvation, that question is and always will be unanswerable. To those for whom the former is only made possible by the latter, the answer is obvious. While Ackerman’s narrator is enamored of Shelby Foote, it is perhaps most appropriate to give the last word to Foote’s friend of nearly 50 years, the novelist Walker Percy, whose formulation was far more thorough than Pascal’s:
This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer “scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less.