Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson

Solaris, 2016, 498 p. Reviewed for Interzone 267, Nov-Dec 2016.

 Europe in Winter cover

This third in Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence of novels (previous knowledge of which is not necessary for reading this instalment) starts with a bang. Under the Urals a young couple blow up both themselves and a train in the tunnel belonging to the Trans-European Republic (aka the Line.) The significance of this, its ramifications, just who was responsible, do not become clear till much later.

Then, what at first seems merely a re-run of the “Hungarians trash the restaurant in Kraków” scene from Europe in Autumn leads to an encounter wherein chef Rudi meets an older version of himself. He is told, “You, and your entire world, are very, very sophisticated computer programs.” Not much later Rudi steps out from the restaurant and the wall behind him fades. The tone of this is of a piece with other scenes in Hutchinson’s trilogy. It is present here to introduce the idea that simulations of various futures are being run in the very secretive polity of Dresden-Neustadt in an attempt to realise a prediction engine. But that concept renders the scene problematic. Indications of unreliable narration are usually welcome, but this revelation verges on the dangerous for an author. How do we then have any faith in the depictions of all that follows?

Trust; and enjoy the roller-coaster. Rudi (what we must assume is the “real” Rudi,) an agent for the smuggling organisation known as Les Coureurs des Bois – a more or less essential organisation for those wishing to get things across Europe’s now innumerable borders – but here seemingly more free-lance, has a large part to play in the remainder of the book. His observation that, “Working in Intelligence is just a case of continually winging it,” neatly describes his approach but is probably more widely apposite. We are also reacquainted, from Europe at Midnight, with The Community, the parallel world created by the English Whitton-Whyte family who, “seem subsequently to have lost the knowledge of how to do it. Either it was lost, or stolen, or destroyed, no one knows, not here or in the Community. There are stories of a book of instructions, floating about somewhere, which tells how to map a new landscape over an old one.” Powerful, and dangerous, the Community had precipitated Europe’s ultra-Balkanisation by unleashing the Xian Flu before official contact was made with it. “There was no way to defend against an enemy who could walk across invisible borders anywhere on your territory whenever they wanted, while you were quite unable to retaliate.”

Hutchinson’s unravelling of the interactions between the (by now essentially former) EU – “The Schengen era was just an historical blip, an affectation” – the Community and an entity known as The Realm (up to something in Luxembourg) is never straightforward but always intriguing. He also finds time to comment on the proceedings. “It had been an eventful day; if he had ever been unsure of what the word infodump meant, he wasn’t now.” Despite the appearance of SF grace notes – stealth suits reduce you to a transparent patch of barely-roiling air, there are time dilation effects between the Community and Europe with even longer ones in a certain cottage by the sea, someone steals part of the Community, it in turn steals Heathrow – the overall treatment is less redolent of the genre. “A solid reliable fellow” is not common SF phraseology. And not many SF novels mention a spectacularly catastrophic bowel movement, or AJP Taylor or, indeed, deliver an amusing aside on the interrogation methods of TV detective Columbo. Other allusive touches include the punning chapter title “The Justified Ancients Of Muhu” and a character named László Viktor. Another character opines, “England is a constant pain in the arse; always whining, European only when it suits them.”

Rudi’s attempts to comprehend the convoluted relationships between the Realm, the Community, his father’s involvement in a billion-dollar trust fund, the murder of a Professor Mundt, the significance of a photograph of attendees at the Versailles Peace Conference and the importance of a group of mathematicians, topologists and cartographers known as the Sarkisian Collective are never oppressive. His discovery of just what his role in Les Coureurs des Bois actually is adds an ironic twist.

Europe in Winter’s essence is really that of a Cold War spy thriller – it even name checks Mutually Assured Destruction – but in SF terms it does not add much to the two previous novels. It’s a good, excellently written Cold War spy thriller; but one nonetheless. That, though, is a strength. When a novel deals with an organisation which is capable of rewriting worlds, that looking-glass, nothing is quite what it seems ambience may be the only suitable medium. Hutchinson executes it superbly.

The following did not appear in the published review:-

Pedant’s corner. (Some of these may have been amended since the proofs):- mediaeval (Hurrah!) but…. none were (none was,) “at one point” occurred in one sentence which was followed only two lines later by a sentence which started with, “At one point,” avis (the context suggests axis rather than a bird,) three-d is an odd contraction, it’s usually 3-d or 3d, would at very least (at the very least,) the crew were prepping (the crew was,) metropoli (metropolis is Greek in origin; so the plural is metropoles,) Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries (if you capitalise Seventeenth and Eighteenth so also should you Centuries,) Polish Border Security were famously savvy (Polish Border Security was,) broke branches off nearby trees to conceal it with (doesn’t need the with,) “with a passport in either hand” (in each hand,) again a chapter number appeared at the very bottom of a page. “Facing them were the Community delegation” (was,) cats-cradle (cat’s-cradle,) in an dialect (in a dialect,) a missing full stop, cammo dudes (two lines later is camo dudes,) off of (no of required,) miasm (miasma,) Forsythe (Forsyth,) on either side (on each side,) “she watched a wild boar sow and half a dozen piglets” (wild boar, sow and…) Tipped his/her head to one side (a Hutchinson tic.)

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