Orbit, 2012, 387p.
Since he’s moved up to Scotland now, I took the opportunity to make a trip down to Dunbar last week to see Eric and it reminded me to catch up on his output.
The Kings of Eternity at first appears to be two stories, a third person narrative set on the Greek island of Kallithéa in 1999, and a first person one which starts in 1935, both of which feature a writer as protagonist. (Due to internal clues the reader quickly intuits they are the same person under a different name.)
As Daniel Langham he is a reclusive author living on the Greek island of Kallithéa and suspicious of anyone who shows an interest in him. These sections relate his wariness of an investigative journalist who seems to know too much about him and, at first, of a female artist who has come to live there and whom he later befriends. The pre-war sections – styled as a Scientific Romance (the Wellsian precursor of Science Fiction) – contain that most English of SF/fantasy tropes, strange goings on in a wood.
There are similarities with other works of Brown’s, which have from time to time focused on authors or artists. Where before these may have been background colour only or else not entirely convincing, here those elements are totally integrated into the story. The Kallithéa segments are reminiscent too of the style of Michael Coney which Brown adapted in Starship Summer.
The plot involves portals from other star systems, alien technologies, galactic wars and an immortality serum. The three companions, who take this last, toast themselves as “the Kings of Eternity!” All this allows Brown to treat with those novelistic biggies, love and death. Another of his familiar themes, religion, is absent here, though.
There are places in which you could interpret the writing as a manifesto. Brown has one of his Kings (not Langham but another author – of Scientific Romance) say, The novelist owes his reader more than the mere documenting of the world already known and written about by a thousand other writers. I try to offer alternative visions, views that perhaps no-one has quite broached in the same way before. But don’t get me wrong, I’m interested in human beings, in the constancy of human motivation and reaction – You’ll find these in my novels as well. Later on another character says, That’s why I find your visions so liberating. They speak to me of something beyond the mundane, the petty concerns of humankind. But these comments are not gratuitous, they counterpoint the plot.
The loneliness, the yearnings, of a man who does not age when those around him do is well conveyed – if perhaps over-elaborated towards the conclusion. At one point Daniel Langham muses, The process of living seems to me to be nothing but a gradual accretion of sadness.
Even though Brown does nothing innovative here and the big conflict of the galactic war is totally off-stage there is, especially in the first two-thirds of the book, a wholeness to his treatment, a sense of everything coming together, that he maybe did not quite achieve before in his novels. This is the fruit of someone approaching the top of his game. Forget all that flash-bang-wallop space battle pyrotechnic stuff others concentrate on, the emphasis on the personal here, on human dilemmas, is the real deal.