Myst in Retrospect
The Book of Atrus
While Myst: The Book of Atrus may not stand as a classic of speculative fiction, in the context of the series it performs exceptionally well. As the title suggests, the book is the story of Atrus, building upon from what little we learned of him in Myst while simultaneously setting the stage for the next game, Riven. Video games aren’t the ideal medium for detailed storytelling, so novelizations like this one were critical to the expansion of the game’s universe.
The Book of Atrus opens with characters we’ve never seen before, Gehn and Anna. Gehn’s wife (here unnamed) has just died in childbirth and he’s distraught. He spurns his newborn son, storms in the direction of a volcano, and disappears. It’s a good opening: cryptic, yet still intriguing enough to get the reader’s attention. It efficiently introduces Gehn and his callous, dispassionate manner, traits which will be critically important later.
Following the prologue, the narrative skips forward a few years. Atrus, the newborn from before, is now a young boy. He’s depicted as a precocious and intelligent child, spending his time conducting scientific experiments and exploring the desert surrounding his home. Anna, the reader learns, is his grandmother, who has seen to his care since the departure of his father. Anna is one of the most richly-developed characters of the series, but one who doesn’t appear in any of the games, so the novels are the single greatest source of information about her. Much of Atrus’s personality was inherited from her, particularly his sense of ethics and thirst for knowledge. The first few chapters are primarily concerned with the lives of Atrus and Anna, an idyllic chapter in Atrus’s life. These first few chapters tend to drag (they are, after all, practically devoid of plot), but they’re necessary to establish the life that Atrus will spend the rest of the book pining for.
Atrus and Anna’s home is the Cleft, a large crevasse at the foot of a volcano. In the novels, it’s located somewhere in the Middle East, though when it appeared in the games it was relocated to New Mexico. The Cleft carries a lot of metaphorical significance, and typically means different things to different characters. To Atrus it represents a happy life which he’s been forced against his will to abandon. To Gehn, the Cleft represents a dead end, a meaningless life which he’s worked hard to escape. In the context of the Myst epic overall, yhe Cleft subtly echoes the form and function of the Fissure (previously seen in the Myst opening), particularly in a scene early in the book in which the flooded Cleft reflects the starry sky. In many cases the Cleft also represents humility, a theme which will recur throughout the series.
At the end of the first act of the book, Gehn emerges from the volcano (a dramatic entrance if ever there was one) and announces his intention to take Atrus to D’ni with him. The word “D’ni” is spoken only once in Myst, in reference to the room where Atrus is imprisoned, so it is here that the reader first learns what it means. D’ni is both a place and a people, the word can be used to refer either to Atrus’s ancestral race or to the underground city where they once lived.
The city of D’ni is perhaps the most significant location in the series, despite the fact that its role in Atrus-centric games is marginal at best. This is due to its overwhelming importance to the backstory. The D’ni were the original practitioners of the Art, and the epic and sudden collapse of their society infuses the entire series with a grim and pessimistic subtext. Our protagonists seem downright weak compared to the grandiose accomplishments of their D’ni forefathers, and the fact that D’ni ultimately collapsed bodes badly. The Book of Atrus spends a fair amount of time in the ruins of D’ni, so the reader gets a strong sense of these themes, despite the fact that the nature of the Fall of D’ni is not discussed.
Much of the tension in the book stems from the fact that Atrus and Gehn see the world very differently. Gehn sees the Fall as a disaster which must be avenged. Atrus sees it as lamentable but ultimately a thing of the past. Gehn’s interest in the Art (the creation of Ages) is as a tool of conquest, a way to restore D’ni to godlike glory. Atrus’s interest in the Art is primarily as a means of self-expression. Gehn also sees himself as a god, believing that the writing of Ages literally creates worlds from nothing. Atrus subscribes to the opinion that the Art simply creates a link to a preexisting world (the “correct” interpretation, according to D’ni doctrine). Even their writing styles are at odds with each other; Gehn prefers to cut and paste from existing works while Atrus starts from scratch and works organically. In short, they agree on nothing, and their relationship is thus doomed to failure.
Gehn’s aim with Atrus is to teach him the Art so that he can join him in re-establishing D’ni’s greatness. To this end he takes Atrus on a series of misadventures both in D’ni itself and in various Ages, but predictably their relationship is eventually destroyed by their irreconcilable differences. Eventually they have a major falling-out and Gehn strands Atrus in the Age of Riven.
Riven, of course, will be the setting of the next game. The creators’ decision to set a significant part of the book there was a good one, as it highlights the significance of the Age in the context of the series overall. Strangely, though, the Riven of the book doesn’t much resemble the Riven of the game. There’s some discussion of Riven’s iconic cliffs, unique water, and of the giant tree (which appears in the game only as a stump), but for the most part there aren’t any specific locations from the book that appear in the game. That’s something of a shame, as it largely nullifies the potential of the Tourist Effect. It would have been fun to seek out locations from the book, even if they weren’t necessary to complete the game. Still, for people who played Riven only after reading The Book of Atrus the ability to visit Riven at all must have been pretty exciting. The book does paint Riven as an interesting place, but it would have been nice to get a clearer picture of how the locations from the book and game align.
While on Riven, Atrus meets Katran, a young Rivenese woman and Writing prodigy. As most of you probably know, Katran (or, to use her more familiar name, Catherine) and Atrus eventually marry, but thankfully the book spares us an overhashed love story. Their budding relationship is depicted as one based on mutual interests and concerns rather than the usual proclamations of devotion seen so often in fiction. In fact, a physical side to their relationship doesn’t figure into the story at all; the reader is simply left to assume it developed after the events of the book. It is a respectful and sadly unusual way to write young love, and first love at that. It would have been very easy to write these two into a saccharine romance, but the authors chose a far subtler tack, and I salute them for it.
Catherine herself is an intriguing character, but in practice the series tends to marginalize her. She has a strong personality, and yet her only significant appearance in a game (Riven) casts her as a helpless prisoner. Her Ages seem to defy the laws of existence, but when one of her Ages finally appears in a game (Serenia, seen in Revelation), its depiction is very shallow. And so it goes with Catherine. Her depiction in this book and her journal in Riven remain the two most sophisticated pictures of her that the series ever presented, and what they reveal only makes her usual irrelevance that much more disappointing. Catherine is the ultimate outsider, she is not D’ni but she is no longer on equal footing with her people. Her approach to the Art breaks all preconceived notions but attains stability anyway. She is caught in a constant struggle between her ambitions and her fears. She lacks Atrus’s moral absolutism and thus is often the most conflicted character in the series. This is all under the surface, though, because Catherine is rarely significant to the series. She just exists in the margin, usually unnoticed and never the center of attention. Catherine stands alongside Gehn and Saavedro as one of the most complex characters in the series, but unlike them, she never gets her moment in the sun.
The book’s conclusion is critical to its integration with the games. The next game will be primarily about Gehn’s imprisonment on Riven, so much of the climax revolves around Atrus and Catherine’s plot to trap him there. Myst Island makes its debut here, as do the volcanic chasms and giant daggers of Riven. The Star Fissure is likewise created as part of the plan, and Atrus, after his final confrontation with Gehn, jumps into it before linking away to Myst. The book ends with a scene in which Atrus ruminates over these events years later, writing in his journal the familiar lines from Myst’s opening: “I realized the moment I fell into the Fissure that the book would not be destroyed as I had planned…”
As a narrative, The Book of Atrus works well; as a novel it’s decent but hardly perfect. The prose, while admittedly superior to that found in most tie-ins, tends to exhibit a sort of bizarre triteness that’s often hard to take seriously.The characters’ dialogue is proper to a fault, like an American’s stereotype of an English person: “‘I hoped the trapdoor would be open, but it looks like we shall have to force our way in.’” (pg. 116). Interior monologues tend to be even worse, resorting to excessively overwrought phrasing at times. In this passage, Atrus is trying to make out something he can’t quite see:
“A girl. It was a girl. … What in Kerath’s name was she doing? Then, with a little jolt, he understood. Washing! She was washing! That little mound beside her was a pile of sodden clothes!” (p. 145)
Regardless of the fact that this incident is probably completely disposable, Atrus’s three-exclamation-point reaction is somewhat inexplicable given the mundanity of the situation. Yet all the dialogue is written like this, and it gets to be distracting after a while.
The book also has many lengthy passages of description. Description is not necessarily a bad thing, but the variety used here basically lists various objects and attributes, stopping somewhat short of being genuinely evocative. Granted, vibrant description is very hard to write, but in a series revolving around books of vibrant description, I’d have liked to see more of an effort made.
Despite what I’ve said, the writing style of this book, and the books that came after it, is far from bad. The dialogue peculiarities are sort of an odd quirk, and the description could be improved, but still this is still a solid piece of work. The book is tightly organized, well-paced, and rarely overwritten. The characters are believable, as are their motivations. Since the vast majority of readers are not stylistic nitpickers like myself, the prose here is more than good enough.
All in all, The Book of Atrus works well. It builds upon the narratives of the games and in doing so explains many aspects of the backstory. Strictly speaking it’s not necessary to read the books in order to complete the games, but eventually the series became derivative of them, to a degree that an uninitiated player might be confused. To some extent this reliance on the books as a “backstory manual” is to the detriment of the games, as it prevents them from standing as well on their own. The later games in particular tend to reference concepts from the books without making much effort to explain what they are: pity the player who enters Uru or End of Ages without having read The Book of Ti’ana. This is unfortunate, but at the same time, the decision to create the novels was a very good one. Games are a very inefficient medium for conveying narrative, so there’s something to be said for allowing the written word, still the most versatile storytelling tool of all, to flesh out the better part of the story.