The Fourth Circle

Winner of the 1994 Milos Crnjanski Award

What could a computer wizard self-exiled in an abandoned Buddhist temple possibly have in common with the humble servant of a medieval fresco painter? What is the link between the enigmatic mission of a giant radio-telescope and a tribe of spherical beings who dwell in a world full of unearthly scents and herbs? What will bring four great scientists from various centuries, Archimedes, Ludolph van Ceulen, Nikola Tesla and Stephen Hawking, to the same spot in time? What has this got to do with Rama, a female computer program, impregnated by a strange ape? And, above all, why is it necessary for Sherlock Holmes and Moriarti to join forces so that the Fourth Circle can finally be closed?

“In its rich tapestry of prose and compositional skills, as well as in its imaginative leaps and intellectual sophistication, The Fourth Circle must be considered, so far, as the author’s masterpiece, an acclamation that extends well beyond a mere appreciation of Zivkovic’s own and singular work.”
SF Site, USA

“When the pieces of The Fourth Circle resolve themselves into a unity in the reader’s mind, something very like (an) epiphany occurs. Overall, one of the more extraordinary moments in recent SF, and one of the most beautiful […] The richness of this novel is such that it can accommodate any number of interpretations; it will certainly sustain years of literary analysis. Circle is the finest allegory of understanding to hit the shelves in some time.”
Locus, USA

Editions:

  • Polaris (Serbian, 1993)
  • Stubovi Kulture (Serbian, 1996)
  • Polaris (Serbian and English, 2002)
  • Amphora (Russian, 2002)
  • Night Shade Books/Ministry of Whimsy (English, US, 2004)
  • Night Shade Books/Ministry of Whimsy (English, US, 2004, a special edition)
  • Laguna (Serbian, 2004)
  • Infodar (Bulgarian, 2005)
  • Blodnjak (Slovenia, 2006)
  • Zavod (Serbian and English, 2009, as a part of the Romani / Novels omnibus)

Polaris Serbian 1st edition Stubovi Kulture Serbian edition Polaris Serbian 2nd edition Polaris English edition Amphora Russian edition Night Shade US edition Night Shade US edition Laguna Serbian edition Infodar Bulgarian edition Blodnjak Slovenian edition Romani Novels


An excerpt, translated from the Serbian by Mary Popovic:

Prologue

The Circle.

He is here because of the Circle. The only thing that matters, the only thing that makes sense. Other questions, which flash occasionally into his mind, fail to even make him wonder.

They ought to, though, for nothing is as it ought to be.

Not this ground he walks on… dry, dusty, sterile, yet yielding underfoot like a thick carpet of grass, responding with unexpected and inexplicable elasticity to his strangely altered weight, although he cannot make out whether he is now heavier or lighter. No matter, he will get the answers upon reaching the Circle, if the questions retain any importance by then.

In the background, the night sky creates different arabesques. Wrong stars form wrong constellations. Strangely, this does not unsettle him, nor does his vague awareness that for some reason he ought to be unsettled before this vista of irregularly spangled arching blackness. He has an inkling that this is connected to things he used to do, in some other place, in a different time, but the necessity of the Circle has almost severed him from his own past.

Almost, not quite.

His memories reach back to the moment when he started to walk towards the Circle. Two suns were lying low in an orange sky, one large, the color of dying coals, the other very small, but fiercely bright. The little sun stood very close above the great one, so that at the moment of sunset, they looked like two connected spheres plunging into an ocean of dust.

He knew, though he could not explain how, that the system had a third member also, one he had not seen yet. (The Circle relies on a minimum of three bases, no?) Now all three suns were hidden by the massive body of the planet, but the third one would soon emerge from the opposite side, behind his back, and he had to get to the Circle by then.

He turned around once, while the horizon was still awash in the pink after-glow, but did not see any footprints behind him in the pliant dust, though one segment of his mind told him they had to be there. This obvious nesessity was overtaken by another, older one—the nesessity of the the Circle, which said that everybody must arrive at the Circle in his or her own way, without following any previous trail.

He did not know what the Circle looked like, but that did not worry him unduly. He would recognize it as soon as he saw it. He also did not know whether he would be the first there, or whether the others had already arrived, but that did not matter. First or last, it was all the same—only together could they close the Circle.

Whenever he started to think about this, in the darkness softened by the monotonous glow of alien constellations, new abysses of ignorance yawned around him. But this did not deter him from his forced march forward, nor did it disturb him much.

How many of them would there be? Three, like the number of suns in this system? Reasonable, but the Circle could be based on seven points too. Or on nine. Which number stood above all others, creating the basis and a sufficient condition for the Circle? Perhaps One? No, nobody could close the Circle alone. In any case, he would soon learn.

Darkness did not slow his pace, as the ground was perfectly flat all the way to the distant range of hills rising somewhere behind the horizon. He could not see it, but he knew the range was there, just as he knew about the third sun.

There were no rocks to trip him up, nor crevasses to fall into. He might have thought that the ground was deliberately cleared for him, had he not known that no path leads to the Circle. And yet, he could not dispel a feeling that the terrain was just so, in order to make this walk easier for him. He sensed the influence of a purpose behind it, but could not fathom it.

For a moment he wondered how he could possibly reach the Circle before dawn, if it was situated behind the range of hills. He was not advancing fast enough to outrun the third sun. Then he rejected even that thought. It had to be closed before the blue light of that sun splashed over the edge of the world behind his back. Therefore, he would arrive there soon.

Low stars, whose muted sheen barely revealed the outline of the horizon before him, were not only unfamiliar but for some other reason seemed strange as well. Although he was aware of this strangeness ever since they first lit up in the heavens, only now was his curiosity aroused. Perhaps the proximity of the Circle was stirring the ability to wonder, which lies at the root of all knowledge; as yet, however, it offered no answers.

The stars did not twinkle. Their radiance was steady and even, as if he was watching them from space, as if, between his eyes and the stars, there was no ocean of air with alterations and turbulence to produce a fitful sparkling in those faraway suns.

Maybe indeed there was no ocean. The idea that he was walking in an airless world, with no defence whatsoever against the vacuum, did not fill him with panic; his faculty of wonder somewhat restored, he continued to think about it in a detached sort of way, as if the issue did not relate to him personally, as if he were only an idle cosmologist, building in a free flight of demiurgic imagination some new, odd model of a universe whose complex equations allowed of departures such as an unprotected walk across a planet without air.

Just for a moment he wondered why it was this comparison with a cosmologist that struck him. Something tried to burrow upwards from the sealed-off memory into his consciousness, but was soon extinguished in the depths far below the surface, leaving him with a dull feeling of non-fulfillment, unattainability. Then his thoughts were directed again at the unblinking stars.

Something did not fit. If this world was devoid of atmosphere, how was he breathing? No answer, at least none that he was ready to accept. Among the latter one was that he was not breathing, that in fact he had ceased to breathe. But that would mean that he was dead. The notion of death brought back the awareness of the Circle; in that awareness, there was no room for endings. The Circle was always a beginning, never an end. Even when you reached the end of it, you had in fact arrived at a new beginning.

There was another thing that did not conform to the obvious lack of atmosphere. Sounds were reaching his ears. Initially, he thought he was hearing the rustle of wind, a filtered echo of gales in the upper strata of this nonexistent air. Then the whooshing softened and became more monotonous. Many strides later, he recognized in it an unmistakable rhythm: sea waves bouncing off the crumbling rocks of some savage shore.

That did not last long, either. The regularity of the rhythm of the waves began to grow, increasing in complexity. Higher harmonies were heard, variations of the basic tone in other registers, oblique motifs. This was no longer a cacophony, a mere sum of random sounds forming a noise, but a deliberate structure, a coherence of carefully chosen tones: music.

Deprived of memory, he could not recognize the melody, but it did awaken something in him, something close to delight but more restrained. Perhaps the reason was to be found in the circularity of the main theme. A rondo was quite appropriate for this place and time, a tonal background for his approach to the Circle.

The tone, however, became distorted, expanded, built itself up into heights, a few steps more and it had soared above the threshold of hearing, into regions audible perhaps to other, more perfect ears, leaving silence in its wake—a silence audible, tense, expectant, heralding the Circle.

He recognized it now that he found himself on its perimeter. Contrary to what he had half expected, there were no markings on the ground, no visible structure at all. The gloomy landscape, under its layer of loose resilient dust, stretched before him monotonously to the horizon in hushed anticipation of the azure dawn. Now he knew for certain that he had arrived.

His place was empty. He could not discern any others before he stepped over the rim.

He held back for a moment, before taking that final step. This was not hesitation caused by a sudden arousal of apprehension, but rather a gathering, a focusing. He felt a sudden wild upsurge in the wells of memory, the pressure of the mainstream of remembrance which might burst out onto the surface at any moment now, flinging wide the gates of the past.

Before this could happen, however, he understood it would bring him only nonessential answers to equally nonessential questions. The purpose of the Circle was still beyond his grasp, but now, standing on the edge, he finally understood that he was not here for answers, but for new questions: those that could only be asked when the Circle was closed—the ones that mattered.

Stretching his hand over his shoulder, he drew the heavy brown cloth hood over his head mechanically, unaware until that moment of its existence, or of the robe which reached almost to his heels. He did not know why he did so: it simply seemed the proper thing to do. The Circle did not require humility, but then, this was no token of humility.

No other preparations were necessary. Although the third sun was not yet touching the horizon behind his back, the landscape flushed dark blue with a premonition of the coming dawn. There were no further reasons for hesitation. In the distended silence, he stepped, filled with a strange mixture of muted joy and melancholy, into the Circle.

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