The late-60's and early-70's were a time of bold and often unfettered experimentation in SF, and the period is generally referred to by the now-quaint anachronism "New Wave." Not all of the stuff from that era is good (come on, admit it, a big chunk of the stuff in Harlan Ellison's groundbreaking Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions anthologies is self-indulgent crap), but it would be way off base to deny that there was a great deal of imaginative fertility working overtime. One of those imaginations belonged to the recently departed George Alec Effinger, an alumnus of the influential Clarion writers workshops. While just a hair short of a masterpiece, Effinger's debut is a deliciously subversive postmodern oddity that was self-referential before self-referential was cool. Lots of writers have written stories about storytelling, but few are as fresh and funny as this one.
The story is set on a distant colony world called simply Home, and is told by Seyt, a son of the very first family to settle on the planet. We learn they were in fact fleeing Earth, where their Father (who is only ever known as Our Father) was heavily into debt. Throughout, Effinger keeps us guessing as to which elements of the story are true and which are legend, as the entire story is Seyt's...and he's an embellisher, to put it mildly.
Everything in the story is thick with religious and mythological significance. As the first family to have settled Home, Seyt's family name is literally First, and all subsequent families have taken numerical surnames as well. The First family are thus elevated to the rank of spiritual and political leaders in the community, and yet are naturally resented by other families. The river along which the colony town resides is not only symbolic of the quest soon to unfold, but it literally represents a godhead for the First family (they sacrifice, of all things, books to it, underlining again the novel's focus on the power of the written word).
With Our Father having long since departed for parts unknown down the river, and Our Mother having descended into madness and death, the eldest son, Dore, sets off on a journey of his own to find Our Father. This journey is chronicled by Seyt, who, having stayed home, is in fact forced to make the whole thing up. Thus a new mythology for the First family and all the inhabitants of Home is created on the spot, as Dore encounters monsters, traps, temptations, and a mysterious companion named Glorian who pops up when Dore needs a deus ex machina to get him out of a fix. Since the First family originally arrived on the planet with a huge cargo of books, Seyt is well versed in classic literary traditions, and he openly and proudly discusses his references — a little Milton here, some Homer there — as he pens his tale.
But the real story of Entropy is that which unfolds around Seyt's story of his brother's adventures. Acutely conscious of the mythology Seyt is creating, and the impact it will have upon the First family's stature, Seyt's myriad bothers and sisters constantly niggle him with critical remarks and suggestions. An unsophisticated writer himself, Seyt jumps back and forth between his myth and what amounts to a personal diary with nary a break. Ultimately the story causes a powerful political rift in the family, with siblings pitted against one another and Seyt feeling the weight of responsibility to both sides. Entropy, indeed, kicks in.
Yeah, it's as brilliant as it sounds. Still, like most experimental novels, a little of it goes a long way. But it's short, with quite a lot of nudge-wink humor from Effinger sprinkled throughout, and that helps. It's remarkable how Effinger's extraordinary talents are so much in evidence even in his first book; Entropy may be trying to do too much, but it's the kind of excess you find in a fresh creative mind let loose for the first time. As well he should, Effinger is working with an I'll-do-anything writing ethic here, and the results provide a degree of excitement you don't often see in present-day, formula-bound publishing conventions. There might have been a lot of pretentiousness going on in SF's "New Wave," but it often takes a climate like that to give birth to work that's really extraordinary.