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West's novice novelist, One Eighth Humbly—who writes the novel one reads here—is a kind of extraterrestrial Gulliver who describes a world quite unlike his own, and in doing so implicitly tries to understand life on his own star as well as on Earth. Like earthlings, he looks for, but doesn't find, proof of an almighty being's existence amid the enormous amount of information he and fellow aliens have assembled. But the story he tells of Clegg and Booth, American military pilots, does afford him a chance to observe humans—intelligent beings for the most part—as they try to understand themselves and the situations that confront them. The novelist doesn't quite get how everything works on earth—the notion of seasons confuses him, his pilots are preternaturally literary—but he gets better as the story picks up momentum. As they fly their high altitude spy-plane Cyrano on its daily sweep above the earth, Clegg and his superior officer, Booth, develop a symbiotic relationship based on flying and on Clegg's fascination with what makes Booth tick. When Cyrano is attacked over Africa, the two men parachute into the Ethiopian desert, where Clegg is caught on a rocky ledge and Booth falls in with a band of cruel salt-miners. As challenging as these experiences are, they're not as difficult as life after their rescue. Finding their debriefings increasingly incomprehensible, even threatening, the two escape, adopt new identities, and go into business as charter pilots. But freedom has its own challenges. Haunted by their heroic pasts, they discover, tragically, that they can't adjust to the prosaic realities of their lives.
A splendid assembly of ideas, language, and allusions, though sometimes the sheer intellectual exuberance overwhelms the story, however conceptually brilliant.