Sci-fi Novel Review: Three Eight One by Aliya Whiteley

This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Three Eight One will be released on January 16, 2024.

Aliya Whiteley doesn’t have an enormous following in my corners of genre fandom, but I’ve heard her cited several times as an exceptional author who leans into the weird and literary sides of the genre. I don’t always like weird and literary, but I sometimes do, and I often enjoy found document stories, so when I had the opportunity to get an advance copy of Three Eight One, I figured it was the perfect opportunity to give her work a shot. 

Three Eight One is narrated by a 24th century would-be historian, sifting through the digital detritus from the Age of Riches to try to find something of value. She happens across an obscure document published in 2024, tagged as autobiography but also as science fiction and fantasy, consisting of a quest narrative broken up into sections of exactly 381 words each. The vast majority of the novel is the reproduced text of this strange narrative, titled “The Dance of the Horned Road,” liberally interspersed with footnotes from the narrator as she tries to understand just what the document could’ve meant to the original audience, and whether it has anything worthwhile to say about her own search for meaning in her life. 

“The Dance of the Horned Road” is a deeply mystifying quest tale, taking place in a world that seems to have technologically advanced beyond the real 2024, but starring a character whose village appears to be mostly cut off from the rest of the world. Their primary connection to the outside world is via the horned road, which calls adventuresome young adults on ritual quests with no clear objective and an implacable antagonist—the breathing man—whose form and motivations are unclear. 

And for a while, this tale is fascinating solely for its strangeness, with the steady stream of confused footnotes from the 24th century narrator adding endearingly amusing color, even if it doesn’t add any clarity. But as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that no infusion of purpose is on the horizon. In fact, I would argue that the aimlessness is in many ways the point. 

Because at its heart, Three Eight One is a book advancing a deep skepticism about externally imposed meaning in life. Both the lead of the frame story and the lead of “The Dance of the Horned Road” keep expecting to find meaning somewhere, and they are consistently disappointed. It’s a direct subversion of the grand fantasy epic–things happen for no rhyme or reason, and the lead responds accordingly, making decisions based purely on the whims of the moment. 

This leads to a handful of truly horrifying moments, alongside a heaping helping of “why exactly is this happening, and why should I care?” Because while the meaning of life is a pretty ambitious theme to tackle in a novel, it’s hard to tell a story that doesn’t matter and generate investment from the reader. The free-flowing prose made it easy to keep reading, and it’s hard to deny that some of the vignettes are intriguing. But once it becomes clear that there’s no grand purpose, other than a demonstration of purposelessness, the rest of the book feels a lot like playing out the string. 

This is not to say that there is no development of character. Both leads come to similar conclusions about externally imposed purpose, and that forces a mindset shift that decreases the importance of their circumstances and increases the importance of their actions. And there are more than a few scenes along the way that comment pretty sharply on how systems can be perpetuated despite no individuals in the system really committing to serve it. It’s Kafkaesque in a way that reminds me very much of some of the early scenes in Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends.  

On the whole, there’s a lot I appreciate about Three Eight One. The themes come through loud and clear, and some of the individual scenes are truly excellent. But the overarching drive of the narrative works against the creation of a story that a reader can really sink into. Make no mistake, that’s all intentional—it’s an ambitious and difficult project, but the project itself is clear. It’s just a project that makes it difficult to maintain full immersion, and for long stretches, I found myself appreciating it more than truly enjoying it. 

Recommended if you like: books that make you go “what?” Exploration of meaning in life. 

Can I use it for BingoIt’s not an obvious fit for any 2023 squares, but it will easily fill the Published in 2024 square that is bound to be on the new Bingo card released in April. 

Overall rating: 13 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads. 

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