REVIEW: The Tyrant by Michael Cisco

Michael Cisco’s The Tyrant is a strange, dreamlike book. It was Cisco’s second novel, after 1999’s award-winning The Divinity Student. Cisco is sometimes claimed as part of the New Weird tradition, and it’s easy to see why with this book.

Cover for The Tyrant by Michael CiscoThe prose of The Tyrant is etched like dreams and nightmares. Much like dreams, the prose doesn’t always flow smoothly, and the unexpected can arrive in a way that feels naturalistic if you’re in time with your dreams, and jarring if you’re reading it from a realist perspective.

Ella is a fifteen-year old genius with legs that don’t work due to polio. She’s a research assistant with Dr. Belhoria, working on research into life and death. Specifically they have a youth with strong astral projection powers who is essentially a paradox, alive and dead at the same time. As Dr. Belhoria explains,

“His syndrome…is a condition of superabundant vitality, with therefore corresponding surplus capacity for death. While in operation as a medium he oscillates between life and death and thus creates a static charge in space, which potential was to a small degree transferred to you.

“Oscillation allows him to be neither dead nor alive but puts him into another category of life altogether, which I will call potential life. His medium state is a reduction to pure potentiality of life…You may imagine an analogy between this and the conversion of potential to kinetic energy in mechanics. When our subject goes static, the life in him is not lost but only converted, and a certain amount of surplus is thrown off in the field of living things–hence the charge you brought away with you yesterday, and which, as you observed, was ectoplasmically expressed.”

Dr. Belhoria’s experiments end up with the youth astrally projecting himself into a liminal space that seems halfway between dream-reality and the afterlife. With his potential energy of life and death, he turns himself into The Tyrant, and wages war with the dead. He takes on Hell itself as if it were the easiest thing in the world. There is no sense that he could lose; that’s not the kind of tension Cisco is working with. The landscape of reality is drastically altered and there is no coming back from it, no return to the status quo. The prose becomes more detached and dream-like.

The walls are not made of stone–somehow she understands, that is, she gets pictures in her mind… The Tyrant has developed a method for culturing bone: when it is still embryonic the bone is highly plastic, moldable into any shape, and is often at this point in the process lightly scented with attar of roses. As it matures the bone stiffens to adamantine hardness, presenting a smooth, unbroken, and continuous surface. The exposed works of the fort are all made of lambent bone white and creamiest soap; leafless black vines, or perhaps some sort of fungus, scribble across the white walls like black creases in snow.

There are few characters of any import in the story. Dr. Belhoria, Ella, and the youth who becomes The Tyrant. Dr. Belhoria has the strongest change, to the point where she seems nearly unrecognizable by the end of the story. Her theories are proven true by the strange new world they occupy, and she just gracefully goes along with it rather than attempting any further explorations.

The youth feels more defined by his role as The Tyrant than a real person, which leaves only Ella. She also doesn’t feel like a particularly defined character, despite much of the novel taking place from her perspective. I’m also uncertain why she had to be so young, given that she’s working as a research assistant to a doctor. She’s never written with a reason to be much younger, she’s never underestimated due to her age, and it simply isn’t a factor in the story being told.

But this is not a story devoted to character in any real way. This is a story devoted to its central conceit, to this strange dream-death world the characters find themselves in. If the world-building and the ideas are not consistent, that’s because dreams never are.

Read The Tyrant by Michael Cisco

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Ryan is a mid-30s nerd, married, with two kids. Also two cats–Cathulhu and Necronomicat. He likes, in no particular order, tabletop gaming, board games, arguing over books, ancient history and religion, and puns. You can find him as unconundrum on reddit.