“Linda made a conscious effort to look at the city through the eyes of someone who, like Tonemcadu, had never seen it before. For the first time, she noticed how big, boxy, clean and gray it was. How its streets buzzed with an energy she’d always associated more with New York than Chicago.” –The Orion Project, pp. 52-3
A unique and thought-provoking novel, The Orion Project immediately grabs your attention. Just a quick glimpse of its cover peaks one’s curiosity. Egyptian pyramids loom in the foreground, overshadowing the muted image of a skyscraper-filled modern metropolis that fades into the background. To our pop culture minds conditioned to apocalyptic films of the Independence Day variety, the dark image of a contemporary city hints at the imminent demise of modern man. While The Orion Project might first appear to be a sci-fi thriller, however, Edward Marin’s debut novel defies categorization, offering instead a profound portrait of modernity through the eyes of an intriguing outsider. What may come as a surprise to some, however, is the fact that this outsider is not entirely impressed by what he sees of twenty-first century America. Therein lies the brilliance of Marin’s narrative; through an engrossing tale of adventure and romance, the author conveys a powerful reflection on the manmade, high tech world that defines modernity.
Literary scholars like myself would call this technique defamiliarization. That is, presenting a familiar object or phenomenon from an unfamiliar perspective in order to challenge the reader to regard it differently, even to question or interrogate why it is the way it is. Whether one chooses to use the formal literary term or not, what it amounts to is a compelling commentary on the reality we live in today.
Marin achieves a poignant contemplation of this reality, subtly exploring the pros and cons of the “progress” humankind has made since the era of the ancient Egyptians. This commentary is achieved through the viewpoint of the novel’s protagonist Tonemcadu, a wise man from ancient Egypt who, after being mummified and displayed within his sarcophagus in the Chicago Museum, awakens from a millennia-long slumber to encounter an entirely foreign culture and world.
Determined to make his way back to Egypt and the pyramids of his people, and equipped with nothing other than his ancient wisdom, Tonemcadu takes off on an international journey back to his homeland. An extremely sympathetic character, Tonemcadu wins readers over with his quiet, humble demeanor within the first two chapters of the book. His enlightened worldview and perspective regarding harmony with the universe is indeed powerful, and it is this – his enormous capacity for compassion and emotional connection – that allows him to connect with people in this new and foreign world, and with his second true love (his first being his Egyptian wife millennia prior), Barbara.
“I think true love can only exist when we’re aware that everything around us is connected,” Tonemcadu explained one day to his beautiful co-worker from Trinidad and Tobago. “If a person hurts another,” he continued, “the person he hurts would still love him if he knew that they’re part of the same whole. I think that’s how you have true or unconditional love” (pp. 82-3).
Through the protagonist’s work as an “illegal alien” and his relationship with Barbara, another immigrant, Marin not only achieves an exploration of themes of cross-cultural communication and love, but also of the controversial issues of immigration, anti-immigration laws, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) workplace raids. Tonemcadu, nicknamed “Tony” by his friends, gets caught by ICE officials in a raid on the restaurant where he works, and is deported to Egypt despite the fact that he has no identifying documents and that there is no record of him in the Egyptian government’s system. “One by one, the detainees were being called to the bars while an agent took down their name, age, country of origin, employment, and immigration status.”
Stuck in his cell at an ICE detention facility, Tony realized that, “in less than an hour, he’d seen everything that mattered to him most come apart” (p. 106). As a visitor from another era, Tony may not understand the intricacies of U.S. immigration law, but he easily comprehends the injustice being perpetrated against the innocent, hard-working people that share his cell with him.
It is in passages like the one quoted above that Marin achieves a more powerful message through fiction than many factual news articles ever do. The Orion Project touches on other “hot topics” in equally powerful ways later in the novel. My personal favorite comes near the very end, when Tonemcadu provides a verbal report to his Pharaoh regarding the modern world. His assessment is perceptive and enlightened, and his criticisms are balanced equally with his compliments. “This is an age of tremendous possibility, thanks to a huge growth in world population [and] a big increase in life expectancy,” he explained, praising the trend towards transnational collaboration and globalization, as well as the improvement in women’s rights and their elevated status in society (p. 226).
Yet one of the most impactful lines of Marin’s novel comes in the form of enlightened criticism regarding the materialist mentality of people from the twenty-first century. This mentality, the protagonist cautions, “isn’t just detrimental to their souls; it also has a negative effect on the planet they’re harming by altering its climate, destroying its forests, contaminating its waters, and polluting its atmosphere. This has put the world on an environmentally unsustainable path which may end up destroying it” (p. 223). The brilliance here is in the delivery, not the message itself. Many people, including environmental activists and politicians, have uttered similar lines, but only those who wanted to listened. Through the voice of his fictional protagonist, however, Marin is able to deliver this same critical message to a more diverse audience without them even realizing.
Despite its critical commentary, The Orion Project remains refreshingly optimistic, anticipating an improved and more enlightened world in our collective future. I will leave you with the wisdom of Tonemcadu, who, despite being a figment of Marin’s imagination, is an incredibly enlightened individual. He envisions a world where “the average person could comprehend that consciousness is as real as the material world and that love is the most powerful force in the universe and the solution to all problems. With acceptance of these facts becoming universal, there could be such a shift in awareness that all of human energy could be focused on positive things” (p. 226). I, too, anticipate such a future for our children, and I am grateful to Marin for painting such a clear vision of that future through his powerful first novel.
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‘The Orion Project’ is the first novel in a projected series of books by Edward Marin featuring the protagonist, Tonemcadu. It is available for purchase in eBook or paperback format. For more information, visit http://www.theorionproject.com/