THE TRAVELER

By John Twelve Hawks

Doubleday. 456 pp. $24.95

John Twelve Hawks's "The Traveler" arrives from the same editor and publishing house that gave us Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," and if a high-powered publicity campaign can do the trick, the new book will achieve the same sort of mega-sales. In fact, it's a better-written and more interesting novel than "The Da Vinci Code," but it remains to be seen if its impassioned warning about the dangers of big government will seize the public imagination the way Brown's attack on the Catholic Church so astonishingly did.

"The Traveler" is without doubt a most readable mix of science fiction and political jeremiad, one that imagines an international conspiracy to destroy individual privacy and freedom in the name of social order. It recalls earlier tales, such as the "Star Wars" movies and George Orwell's "1984," that portray a few brave individuals challenging an evil empire -- or a Big Brother with powers far beyond anything Orwell could imagine. Modern technology, the novel's arch-villain chortles, will enable him and his allies to watch and supervise every person in the industrial world. The story unfolds in the not-too-distant future, but it is based on an elaborate mythology that extends far back in history. In every age, we are told, there have been Travelers, visionaries who can explore other dimensions, interact with creatures there and bring back ideas to our world. They have included Jesus, Joan of Arc, Saint Francis of Assisi and Isaac Newton. These visionaries have always been persecuted by kings, churches and governments, who see them as agents of disorder and chaos. The armies of oppression are directed by the Brethren and their soldiers, the Tabula. But there has also evolved a race of warriors, called Harlequins, whose sacred mission is to protect the Travelers. By one account, Peter, when he sought to save Jesus from the Roman soldiers at Gethsemane, was the first Harlequin.

Although this struggle has gone on for centuries, in our own time the Brethren, helped by powerful computers, millions of cameras in public places, face scans and other technology, have tracked down and killed all but a handful of Travelers and Harlequins. The novel turns on the Brethren's efforts to kill the last of these freedom-fighters and rule the world unopposed. Most of us remain oblivious to this epic struggle, because we are drones, sedated by Britney Spears, the Super Bowl, video games, drugs, Fox News and other senseless diversions.

Our heroine is Maya, daughter of a legendary Harlequin named Thorn. She has been trained from childhood to kill, but now, in her twenties, she yearns for an ordinary life in London, complete with nice clothes and romance. Her father, crippled by a Tabula attack, asks her to journey to the United States to find two brothers who may be Travelers. She refuses, but then her father is brutally killed by the Tabula, and Maya must accept her destiny. In Los Angeles we meet Gabriel and Michael Corrigan, whose Traveler father was killed -- or was he? -- by the Tabula when they were children. Have they inherited his powers? Gabriel mostly likes to ride his motorcycle, while Michael dabbles in real estate. Gabriel lives "off the Grid" -- an assumed name, no credit cards -- but Michael has been using his real name, which has allowed the Tabula to close in on them.

Many adventures ensue. Michael is captured by the Tabula and taken to the New York fortress of the Brethren, who think that his powers can help them win the support of an advanced civilization that has contacted them. The chief of the Brethren is Gen. Kennard Nash, who has been an adviser to presidents of both parties but now has grander ambitions: "Every few years we'll pick a different mannequin to give speeches from the White House Rose Garden." Meanwhile, Maya slices and dices armies of Tabula with her magic sword. She and Gabriel hide out for a time on a commune in the Arizona desert, with families who have been inspired by a Traveler to give up materialistic lives in the Vast Machine, as they call our society. We accompany Gabriel when he first explores other realms of reality. His experience sounds suspiciously like an LSD trip as described by various other writers: "Gabriel walked on an empty beach where each grain of sand was a tiny star."

How you respond to all this will depend in large part on whether you are sympathetic to the author's fears of powerful forces that want to stifle individual freedom in the name of order. If you are happy with the status quo, you'd probably regard the novel as hippie/trippy New Age nonsense. However, if you see our freedoms being eroded, you will think "The Traveler" raises important questions about where present trends are leading. The author helps his case by writing well: His prose is smooth, his characters are believable and his pace never slackens. Political prophecy is rarely such fun. The novel is billed as the start of a trilogy, so we have not seen the last of Maya (who has been exhibiting alarmingly girlish, non-Harlequin feelings toward Gabriel) and the troubled Corrigan brothers. Personally, I'm worried about that advanced civilization the Brethren are flirting with. Beware of advanced civilizations bearing gifts.

Novelist John Twelve Hawks, by the way, is a man of mystery. He gives no interviews, provides no pictures and tells us only that he "lives off the Grid." There are rumors that he's really fat, 40 and named Bernie Broadbeam, but that could be more of the Brethren's insidious lies.