Most people have never heard of “John Twelve Hawks” or his “Fourth Realm Trilogy” – a trio of spellbindingly written dystopian novels that probe the heart of modern civilization. While the first book, “The Traveler” was an International-Book-of-the-Month-Club selection, the author himself is famously reclusive. So what is it that really separates this series from the dozens of other science-fiction novels lining the shelves?
Quite simply, the fact that his vision of the future rings true.
The Fourth Realm trilogy is made up of three volumes: “The Traveler,” “The Dark River,” and “The Golden City.” Set in the not-very-distant future, the series is essentially a re-envisioning of George Orwell’s “1984” for the digital age. A mysterious organization of mercenaries known as the “Tabula” hopes to permanently prevent acts of terrorism by keeping citizens under constant surveillance – via an intricate network of microphones, cameras, and computer tracking chips. People will continue to go about their daily lives – without knowing they are being watched – so long as they do nothing to compromise the societal order. Dissidents simply disappear, with many turning up dead under suspicious circumstances.
Sounds familiar, right?
Enter the Travelers and the Harlequins. The Travelers, alone among human beings, can separate their “Light” (their soul) from their physical body, and use it to cross over into one of five additional parallel realms. Each of these five realms reflects Earth (the titular “Fourth Realm”) in some way. This supernatural ability allows Travelers to communicate with the inhabitants of the parallel realms…whose intentions for humanity are unknown. The Harlequins are an order of sword-toting warriors sworn to protect the Travelers. They thrive on randomness, even carrying random number generators around their necks which they use to make decisions (i.e. an odd number means “turn left,” an even number means “turn right”).
As “The Traveler” opens, Gabriel and Michael Corrigan are the only two known Travelers, although their gifts have remained latent. Maya, a bitter young Harlequin woman, is assigned to guard them…but the sinister Tabula mercenary network gets to Michael before she can. Gabriel and Maya, accompanied by an unlikely group of sympathizers, must thwart the Tabula’s plan for global control and try to save Michael.
As the story progresses, Gabriel and Maya draw closer together, which forces Maya to choose whether she will allow herself to feel emotion (the cardinal sin for a Harlequin). Gabriel discovers his Traveler talents, and crosses over into a series of disturbing parallel universes in search of his brother. And all the while, the Tabula is tightening its grip on the world…
From a literary standpoint, the saga is outstanding. The books read like a fusion of “1984,” “The Bourne Identity,” “Atlas Shrugged,” and “The Matrix” – a spellbinding combination that elevates them above the standard piece of dystopian fiction. The series is unpredictable and un-put-down-able. Even more compelling is the books’ undercurrent of truth. It’s a recognized fact that almost everything we do is monitored in some way, by someone. It would be only a short step for the government to collate all these efforts under one banner. This concern has gained new relevance in the era of the PATRIOT Act…is it justifiable for the government to monitor all its citizens, on the off chance that one might be a terrorist? Author Twelve Hawks obviously disagrees.
There are a lot of worldview implications as well. The mythology of the Travelers and the Harlequins is derived from Tibetan Buddhism – a much more mystical variant of Buddhism emphasizing the interaction of gods and demons in a succession of parallel worlds. The whole concept of a Traveler separating his soul from his body is clearly rooted in the New Age concept of astral projection.
While many characters profess to be Christians, their behavior reflects a much more syncretistic worldview. For Twelve Hawks, specific beliefs are not as important as a general support for individual dignity and free will. It really doesn’t matter whether his characters are evangelical, Buddhist, Catholic, Islamic, or atheistic…as long as they’re willing to stand against the Tabula, they’re the “good guys.”
Book 3, “The Golden City,” clears up some of these questions. Gabriel has a long conversation with the spirit of his father that reflects Twelve Hawks’ underlying worldview. According to Gabriel’s father, God created the world and then went silent, with no one hearing from him since. Thus, it is up to individual humans to create their own meaning. The behavior of the Harlequins and Travelers stems from this existentialist outlook. If meaning is found through the choices of the individual, randomness is the appropriate response to a world that seeks to promote homogeneity above all. Their defiance of the Tabula is not just rebellion against oppression – rather, it is the way that they find fulfillment in life.
There is some objectionable content – namely, stylized bloody violence (think: “The Matrix”) and language. There is one scene in Book 2, “The Dark River,” that recalls certain similar mature elements in “1984”…but it’s merely implicit, and is integral to the plot. If adapted into films, the books would probably get PG-13 ratings.
So should you read them?
This series is dark, and at times disquieting. But that’s because it’s very, very close to the world we live in. It’s thought-provoking in a way that few other modern sci-fi/suspense novels have managed to be. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to young or sensitive readers, the series is both exciting and eye-opening. It’s possible to value the social/political commentary of this series, while still recognizing the questionable worldview elements in light of God’s Word. Recommended for all readers who enjoy thinking about the balance of liberty and security in an increasingly unstable world.
A brilliant work of science fiction blended with a realistic, provocative vision of the future.