By Lisa Koosis
With its grandiose world-building efforts and imagination-bending speculative science, science fiction so often tends to be larger than life. Efforts in this genre, if they're not epic, groundbreaking, or mind-blowing, are considered, somehow, inferior -- and maybe there is truth in that, since science fiction, is, after all, a speculative genre.
But speculative material can also be found in simplicity -- in the world we inhabit in this time, in this place. In fact, "K-PAX" by Gene Brewer is refreshing for just that simplicity.
The premise of K-PAX is this: a psychiatrist in a mental hospital is treating a patient, Prot, who believes he is from the planet K-PAX. The dramatic question, of course, is this: Is Prot an extraordinarily disturbed man, or is he, perhaps, really from another world?
K-PAX is almost entirely about perception, and Gene Brewer balances the two sides of possibility deftly, keeping them remarkably, perfectly, symmetrical.
Or does he?
The novel is written from the point of view of Gene Brewer (and yes, the author places himself as a character in the novel), a psychiatrist with a very busy schedule. Acting director of the institution, Brewer juggles meetings, internal politics, and patients, barely having time enough left over for his family. When a colleague refers the case to him, however, it seems unusual and challenging enough that he just can't resist, and so, he is introduced to Prot.
Prot is one of the more extraordinary characters found in current science fiction. He is extraordinary in just how well fleshed-out he is. Under Gene Brewer's (as author) expert craftsmanship, Prot lives and breathes, taking shape and form as multi-dimensionally as any character could hope for.
In fact, Prot and his delusion are so complete, and so enticing, that two distinct things happen:
One, on a reader's level, Gene Brewer, without actually having the characters set foot on another planet, manages to bring an alien world to life.
Two, within the novel, Prot manages to touch every other character that graces the pages of "K-PAX". Perhaps he is only a mental patient, but he is also a healer and a man of great wisdom, and there are many a patient (and perhaps a staff member or two) that desperately want to accompany him when he returns to his home planet.
Brewer brings to life a cast of characters, all remarkable, all believable, though some only exist for a mere two or three pages. There is Bess, a sad soul who believes that she deserves nothing. There is Chuck, former doorman, who thinks that everyone (with the exception of Prot) stinks. There is Maria, with her multitude of alter personalities, and there are Ernie and Howie, two unlikely roommates. On the pages of "K-PAX" you'll find some of the best characterization in science fiction.
Stylistically, "K-PAX" is very breezy and pensive all at once. Gene Brewer has an easy writing style that doesn't draw attention to itself once -- the mark of a great writer -- and the story flows readily from page to page.
And "K-PAX" works well even if you don't consider yourself a science fiction aficionado. As reflective as it is, it reads equally well as a study of human nature under marked circumstances, and drops all sorts of philosophical questions into the reader's lap.
Whether you believe that Prot is truly from K-PAX, or whether you believe that he is simply a man deluded, this is a novel of uncanny sensitivity and insight. Alternately touching and hilarious, "K-PAX" is one remarkable journey -- one on which you should definitely hitch a ride.