I picked up The Prince and the Singularity: A Circular Tale by Pedro Barrento on one of my Bookbub binges back in 2014. Three years later, on a self-imposed book-reading binge for the Goodreads reading challenge, I finally picked it up and read it.
Or rather, I should say that I experienced it. I feel like this would have been one of the texts assigned to me if I were still in high school, taking English classes.
So you’ll have to forgive me if it sounds like I’m writing an essay instead of a review.
What I Thought Didn’t Work Well
Characters and Plot
The back description claims that The Prince and the Singularity “proposes a fictitious Creation Myth, whisking the readers away on a thought-provoking rollercoaster ride of a story that will make them question as never before what they truly believe about the nature of existence.” Indeed, I was attracted to the intellectual promise of this tale, but more than that, I was attracted to the titular prince named “Francis,” who tricks three gods into granting him the power to walk on water, the power of immortality, and the power to cure the sick.
Sounds simple, right? If I overheard three gods talking about two gods that released Desire and Rejection into the world, I’d want to fight it off with some godly powers. But why deceive the gods? That would imply I follow quite the obscure moral compass, wouldn’t it, even though the narrator claims the prince is searching for “adventure and knowledge” at the start of the second chapter.
Either case, the Prince goes on his adventure with his newfound powers, finds that he can’t get rid of Desire and Rejection to fix the world, and — spoilers — decides to die on his own terms.
It was questions like these, I believe, about the Prince and other characters that showed up, keeping me from enjoying the story fully. I especially enjoyed how one character, bestowed with the gift of altruism, was made “evil.” His desire to help others was often unwanted by other people, even though altruism, as a personality trait, is highly praised. While some motivations were ones that I could understand, I couldn’t understand others because the characters were on the page for a very short time.
Because I had trouble figuring out what some of the characters were doing, I also had trouble understanding the rest of the plot.
However, I have to remind myself that the The Prince and the Singularity is not an average read.
What I Thought Worked Well
Style and Setting
The book doesn’t even start with the prince. It starts, like all good introductions, with negations:
What is this story about? Well, it is kind of difficult to describe. Let’s see:
It’s prose, but it reads like poetry.
It has elements of the fantastical including a prince and a damsel in distress, but it doesn’t belong to the fantasy genre.
It’s a fairy tale, but it is not meant for children.
It has no sex, no violence and no foul language, but it is definitely not boring.
It is circular, but not round.
Finally, it has several layers, but an onion it is not. So what is it then?
Well, read on. . .
The rhetorical technique of starting with negations isn’t new, but it is by no means ineffective. It is confusing at first, but the confusion these negations induce is precisely why they are so important at guiding the reader through the rest of the story. If The Princes and the Singularity is prose, but reads like poetry, then that means it “reads” like a figurative poem with the typical outfits of poetry like having a speaker, stanzas, syntax, etc. (which it does in some cases, thanks to the formatting). If it is fantastical, but not of the fantasy genre, it is both real and unreal. If it is a fairy tale, but not meant for children, it is both mature and immature. If it is circular, but not round, it is self-reflective.
My favorite negation, however, is at the end — how it has “several layers,” but “an onion it is not.” Not only does the negation play with figurative language by comparing figurative layers of a story with the real layers of an onion; the language of the ending negation is also reversed. Rather than saying “it is not an onion” and placing the emphasis on what the story “is,” the narrator encourages the reader to focus on what is not — the aether, the negative universe, the black hole that forces the universe to collapse on itself.
Which is the main focus of this book.
Because while the chapter opens with a description of Desire and Rejection, it follows with Gods playing cards and betting their divinity to create the Universe again and again, and how the Prince, with his immortality, is a “bug in the system.”
Watching God play cards with his fellow demigods and come up with permutation after permutation of the script for the new universes, I am almost reminded of the times when I’d open up a Microsoft Word Doc or a new file for Scrivener, start to type something, delete it, then start typing again. And while reading this book, I got that same feeling, especially in the latter sections and chapters. Especially when Chapter 26 is literally called “Chapter 26.” And the off-page narrator claims that the next few pages were ones they wrote, but stowed away, because they felt the ending for the Prince was obvious and didn’t need to be told.
That, for me, was the red flag. The Prince and the Singularity is not meta-fiction in the traditional sense, but perhaps in some ways, it is. Perhaps, it asks us to question our reality not through what is, but what isn’t — the thin line between reality and imagination. The phrase that gets repeated the most in the story is “Reality just is,” but even that gets contested by other characters.
I enjoyed the intellectual and literary journey The Prince and the Singularity gave me. However, there were times when the intellectual side overpowered the storytelling side in terms of characters and plot, and had that not been the case, I think the work, overall, would have been even more powerful and stimulating.
I look forward to reading Pedro Barrento’s other works when I get the chance.