Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun by Neil Rushton

This is one of the most remarkable things I’ve read in a long time. I truly think that Neil Rushton may be the new Dennis Potter and that’s about as high an accolade as I can give a writer.

It is by no means an easy, comfortable or pleasant read. But it is excellent. If you have the stomach for it. On the one hand it seems to be the story of a descent into madness. But it’s so much more than this. It’s uncompromising in the brutal honesty of its description but at the same time it’s beautifully written throughout.

There’s incest, and drug abuse and I’ll be honest when I started reading it I thought it would be about LSD ‘tripping’ which I admit I was taking a ‘deep breath’ and trying to ‘learn  about by reading.’ I’ve always been deeply suspicious of mind altering substances and risk averse and the ‘bad’ trip is something that scares me witless. And the ‘good’ trip has never seemed worth it to me. And I’ve never had it describe to me in a way that would change my mind. It always seems that the proponents of mind altering drugs just have a wee bit too much of the evangelical self justification about them and are, how can we put it, usually generally quite messed up. I value my brain and I kind of like it the way it is. It’s always served my purposes well enough without me abusing it or expanding its consciousness beyond what a ‘natural’ high can do. Well,  Rushton doesn’t send me out rushing for the psychedelic drugs but he does give a very good insight into a mind thus altered. As such it’s a very valuable read. It’s far more intelligent than Trainspotting. It’s far more powerful and potent. I’d go so far as to say this book really takes your mind on a ‘trip’ but without the necessity of any drugs whatsoever.

The depth of cultural referencing is something that impressed me and as I went through I became increasingly certain that for every thing I proudly ‘got’ or referenced there was much more I was probably missing. Alice in Wonderland, Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and the music of Pink Floyd were just three… I’ll leave you to find your own, I suspect it’s part of the ‘journey’ into enlightenment.

On reflection, I can’t explain the whole of what this extraordinary novel is about – and not just because I don’t want to spoil the story, but because I find I can’t explain it clearly. But it doesn’t matter. Clear explanation of the truly incredible is exactly what Rushton does throughout this narrative.

Rushton talks of reality, of time, of madness, of collective consciousness and of the destruction of the ego from so many interesting points of view that I could discuss them all day and still not get to the crux or the heart of his thesis.

‘How do you explain what Mind sees?’ he asks

One of the reasons I read is to find out how other people experience the world and that’s what most gripped me about Set the Controls. But then it took hold of me and took me to places I didn’t think a book could take my mind – and all the time I felt that Rushton was completely in control of what he was saying  – which is remarkable given the content of what he’s writing about.  It messes with your mind. In a good way.

He talks of the central character ‘wandering around his own life as if it were someone else’s.’  And I kind of ‘got’ that. Just don’t ask me to explain it more clearly than he can.

‘If you can come to an acceptance that you don’t really exist as an individual then you’re on the path to enlightenment.’  Now maybe this is what I would generally consider to be the evangelical drug user at work but in this context it’s so much more. It would be trite to describe the story as ‘addictive’ but in some way that’s exactly what it is. Taking drugs by proxy. Getting into another mind. Experiencing another consciousness. But (relatively) safely. Though believe me, you don’t feel ‘safe’ all the time.

‘What if I were to tell you that your entire life has been created out of someone else’s imagination.’ the central character is told. And of course it has. But Rushton gives us just that level of uncertainty of reality to make us wonder whether it’s just possible that we too are imaginary creations. It sent shivers through me that I’ve not experienced since a particular moment in Dennis Potter’s ‘Cold Lazarus’ when all times and realities collide for Daniel.  And for that I applaud the writer!

You need a strong stomach. You need a brave heart and an adult mindset and the desire and ability to go beyond, to understand and to fathom places which you normally try to ignore. But if you do you’ll be richly rewarded.This novel will push you to the limits of your imagination, further perhaps than you initially feel comfortable in going, but this is a ‘safe’ trip. And you will certainly learn something from it.

It’s complex, multilayered, challenging, deep, insightful, difficult. Read it. If you dare. But beware, it contains mind-altering narrative.

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

Available in Kindle Format

Find out more about Neil Rushton

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