Spider World

Buy this book from Amazon.comVolume 1: The Tower, $22.95
Volume 2: The Delta, $21.95
Volume 3: The Magician , $21.95
Volume 4: Shadowland, $14.95
Hampton Roads Publishing Company
Colin Wilson

by Kris Lawson

In the acknowledgements to Shadowland, the brand-new installment of Colin Wilson's science fantasy Spider World, Wilson—noted author of more than 80 books ranging from criminology to metaphysics—writes to "express my gratitude to Roald Dahl, who in 1975 said to me casually over dinner, 'You ought to try writing a children's book.'" Wilson has more than answered his friend's challenge with this pleasurable series, though like precursors such as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea Trilogy, the ideas within aren't only for children. Called "visionary fiction" by his U.S. publisher, the series begun in 1985 with The Tower ended on something of a cliffhanger with 1992's The Magician. More than a decade later that story line now concludes in Shadowland (though Wilson hints that a follow-up volume titled New Earth may be in the works), and the entire series has been restored to print.

Spider World is at first glance a harsh study of evolution, a key concept in Wilson's oeuvre since his groundbreaking debut The Outsider; the conflicts of intelligence versus might and entitlement versus inheritance predominate as the novels worry the question of what determines a species' survival and what kind of survival it might be. But Spider World is also a classic quest tale: the hero, Niall, possesses special abilities and the courage to achieve his potential. He goes on journeys, both mystical and physical, and overcomes mental and corporeal obstacles in order to achieve his goals: to gain control of his supernatural abilities and to realize the power to change the world around him. On this level, the term "visionary fiction" fits very well; densely packed with layers of meaning, this futuristic tale invokes the inner resources of human consciousness as much as it does science.

Wilson's prose is deceptively simple, even repetitive at times. Like other science fiction writers, Wilson not only has to introduce his characters, he also has to set up his universe and explain it for the reader. He does this in graphic, sometimes stomach-turning detail, vividly demonstrating the animal-like qualities of his human protagonists through their senses of smell and taste. Here, Niall and the other boys in his family keep watch on a giant ant colony:

In the branches of the tree and in the roots of the bushes lived large green aphids, looking like fat grapes, which ate leaves and sap. Periodically, an ant would approach an aphid and stroke the bulbous abdomen with its antennae; then a large globule of a clear, sticky substance would emerge...Niall and Hrolf were finally persuaded to try the experiment and were agreeably surprised; it was sweet, syrupy...they found nothing repellent in the notion of eating the product of a green fly's digestive system.

The imaginative setting of the series title is the result of a catastrophic change in the earth's biosphere. Virtually all of human history, including the knowledge of when and why the earth changed, is lost except for vague legends. Insects and spiders have evolved into giant creatures and are capable of varying degrees of intelligent thought; spiders, having previously used their mental power to cow and control their prey, have evolved into the top species of this new order. They believe themselves perfectly justified in this role, since they see humans, with their inherently violent tendencies, as inferior; they also remember how humans used to treat them. A few groups of free humans exist, dwindling under the combined threat of hunting spiders, the less intelligent but just as hungry predators of the insect world, and even many plants which have now grown to a size and malignancy that can kill humans easily.

The first book in the series, The Tower, introduces Niall, a child in a small clan of humans who live in primitive, post-apocalyptic squalor in the desert. Hiding in caves, venturing outside with small, furtive motions, the humans of Niall's clan are defined as "prey" in the food chain of their world. They scavenge, living like parasites on the excretions of plants and insects in the desert when hunting goes badly or is thwarted by a squad of spiders flying over the desert in silk balloons. Niall and his family are losing their struggle to survive: successive crises have worn them down and a desperate gamble to save the family ends in tragedy. After a visit to a hidden city of humans, Niall does the unthinkable: he confronts and kills a spider. Bent on rooting him out, the vengeful spiders eventually enslave him and his family, taking them to the spider city.

The spiders and their neighbors, the bombardier beetles, have created social systems with one major area of commonality: humans, being naturally destructive if not outright evil, are set firmly at the bottom of the social and natural order. The beetles, who allow their human workers some freedom, have signed a peace treaty with the spiders, and so have no qualms about letting the spiders treat their own humans as fodder, as long as nothing disturbs beetle territory. Only when Niall and his rebels obtain Reapers—ancient human weapons of mass destruction—do the beetles take them seriously, first ordering them to give up the weapons, and when that proves ineffective, actually negotiating with them to prevent the spiders from declaring an all-out war. Wilson demonstrates skillfully that politics remain the same, even if the species participating in the civilization has six legs and antennae.

As Niall searches the spider city for a way to escape, he discovers the White Tower, a mysterious building with an impenetrable shield. Thanks to his curiosity, he already possesses a talisman he found in the desert while exploring, and this is the key that will unlock the shield. The Tower reveals to Niall the lost history of the human race, the knowledge to use the power inside him, and a hint as to how the spiders might ultimately be defeated. Armed with aggressive mental powers and the aforementioned Reapers, Niall sets about building a power base, discovering along the way that the thrills of rebelling and violence are far outweighed by their negative consequences. As the book ends, Niall ignores the peace treaty negotiated by the beetles and, echoing his father's desperate choice, decides to follow his instincts and travel to the Delta in order to destroy the source of the spiders' power.

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The Delta details Niall's journey through an antagonistically aware jungle to the mysterious Source behind the evolutionary changes on Earth. Despite the journey's uncertain outcome, Niall's friends accompany him, confident that their Reapers will protect them from the increasingly predatory plants and animals. As they get nearer to the Source, Niall realizes that it is more powerful than he suspected, and as his physical journey progresses, so does his mystical path; he stretches the limits of his mind and communes with the different levels of mental energy, learning that his perceptions are evolving into something more than human.

By the time he reaches the Source, he has to make a choice. A human victory demands that the Source be destroyed, which will lead to the eventual restoration of human civilization dominating the earth. But Niall now wonders if another kind of human victory may be possible. He decides that humans, based on their history and violent instincts, are not entitled to be the sole dominant species, but he believes they deserve to have another chance at coexistence. In order to establish humans as worthy of evolution, side by side with the spiders and beetles, Niall has to convince the Source that humans can change. In doing so, he must risk his mind and his physical safety in two separate shows of faith.

Niall returns to the spider city, where the conflict over the neglected peace treaty is raging. He struggles to explain to his fellow humans the outcome of his journey, which to them seems to have accomplished nothing except losing the Reapers that lend them power against the spiders. Bent on his mission from the Source, Niall confronts the spiders during a meeting of their council. As they try to force Niall to submit, the Source manifests itself to protect Niall, and the spiders, who revere the Source as a goddess, accept Niall as their new leader.

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The Magician picks up on this interesting plot twist, as Niall and the other humans try to figure out how to free the humans without losing the evolved efficiency of the spider city. A crisis erupts immediately when a much-hated spider, Skorbo, is found murdered. Niall and Dravig, a spider lord, work together to solve the mystery, while at the same time learning startling new ideas about each other's species.

As Niall tries to track down the murderers, he finds himself facing a psychic opponent—a mysterious dream figure called the Magician, who has sent strangers to the spider city for some unknown purpose, and can kill his minions from a distance. Armed with deadly weapons, the Magician's assassins manage to wound Niall's brother, Veig, who begins to die slowly from the poison infecting him. Desperate to save his brother, Niall decides to find the Magician and force him to heal his brother.

In Shadowland, Niall begins his journey to the mountain stronghold of the Magician. Soon his physical journey becomes much more of a mystical one, as Niall encounters the chameleon men, who teach him to travel without his body, and the trolls, who help him attune himself to a crystal power source that the Magician covets. In the company of Captain Makanda, an exiled spider, Niall finds the Shadowlands, an underground city mechanized to perfection by the Magician, who tries to control his human subjects as thoroughly as the spiders did. Niall realizes that the Magician has poisoned Veig as a means of luring him to the city, in order to discover and steal his powers. Yet despite vast resources, the Magician's fatal weakness is his reluctance to innovate, and Niall finds this is his only hope as he confronts the most powerful enemy he has ever faced, to save himself, his brother and his city.

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Wilson, whose many books include several that explore psychic and occult phenomena, has created a mystical hero in Niall, who fights his battles not in the physical world but in the astral plane. Against the physically massive spiders and their brawny, bred-for-perfection human bodyguards, Niall has no chance to save himself or his family except by moving the battle to another field.

It is Niall's willingness to experiment, to try new things and open his mind to new perspectives, that places him above other humans, as well as the spiders and insects, who have no capacity for imagination. Niall's journey is replete with spiritually symbolic terms: The Tower, which in Tarot represents change or destruction, engenders a revolution. It also represents an ivory tower, since Niall's new knowledge limits him to a certain extent, turning him away from developing his mental powers and toward gaining political power. In The Delta, the Source is Niall's goal—a balancing, nurturing force, a goddess to go with the warlike domineering powers he has already subsumed. After he achieves the balance, Niall himself is a "magician," an adept who has accumulated power and is now learning how to wield it. Niall chooses to forge bonds between himself and the spiders, as well as with his family; his enemy, the other Magician, chooses to kill and destroy. And finally, in the Shadowlands, Niall walks not just in shadowy caves, but also in the shadowy lands of the astral plane. Leaving his body behind, Niall's mind travels to even more distant destinations.

Founded on a fascinating philosophical bedrock, Wilson's Spider World is a dense read, full of vivid descriptions of insect and spider behavior, as well as a mystical tale that takes its main character from fugitive to magician. Niall is one of a few humans willing to use his brain for something more than mere survival. His sense of wonder and curiosity carry him into a different world: the one he carries inside his mind. As he struggles not just for survival but also to master the growing power and knowledge he accumulates, Niall's search takes him to the heart of the power that informs the new evolutionary order.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004