Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson

Solaris, 2015, 304 p.

 Europe at Midnight cover

The Campus is an enclosed society which has just undergone a revolution but any attempts to escape its confines fail on the many lethal obstacles preventing it. Its latest head of intelligence jokingly calls himself Rupert of Hentzau and has set about instituting a fair justice system. Meanwhile, in a world recognisably ours (if in the future,) a man is stabbed on a late-night bus and claims asylum.

Back in the Campus “Rupert” misjudges a situation and provokes a counter-revolution. Araminta Delahunty, who had kayaked into his life one day, provides his outlet. She is from our world, seeking her brother who had managed to travel out of it, and shows “Rupert” the way to England. A connection to the stabbed man is soon established.

This is the set-up to Hutchinson’s tangled tale of parallel worlds, a development of the scenario he laid out in Europe in Autumn with its Europe splintered into a patchwork of variously sized polities (with borders of different degrees of rigidity) where the number of entries to the Eurovision Song Contest can exceed 600 – and the voting takes three days. At one point in the book “Rupert” (I can’t remember Hutchinson revealing his character’s “real” name) muses, “I had the impression that the English would have quite liked to be in Europe so long as they were running it.” Well, yes.

Unlike in Europe in Autumn in this book we also spend some time in The Community, the parallel world constructed in the maps produced by the Whitton-Whyte family where the county of Ernshire and its chief town Stanhurst are connected to a Ukipper’s wet dream of a greater England stretching from Iberia to the area Moscow occupies in ours – and which is much more menacing in this novel than its predecessor.

Again Hutchinson has managed to produce a Cold War type spy story within a Science Fiction scenario but this novel has more of the whiff of SF about it than did Europe in Autumn. The book has literary quality too; his characters are eminently believable and the action sequences well handled.

Notwithstanding this, the novel’s structure is perhaps a little askew. It may have been a slight mistake to begin with the scenes in the Campus as these were very well delivered and contained the book’s most intriguing character, Araminta – user of those very non-Science Fictional words muppet, berk and cockwomble – but for plot reasons we no longer return there after “Rupert” leaves it. To be fair the other settings are as convincing but throughout I found myself pining for the Campus.

Overall it’s excellent fare though.

Pedant’s corner:- poison chalice (poisoned chalice,) presently (to mean “soon” – this read oddly to me as Scots use presently to mean “at the moment”,) two full stops at one sentence end (this may have been meant as an ellipsis but three dots is surely the minimum for that,) the Board were starting (the Board was starting?) the team were using (the team was using,) the team are working (is working,) math (maths,) [these past two appeared in dialogue so are excusable; just.] Each sub-section within the chapters of the book was prefaced by a number: one of these numbers appeared at the very bottom of a left hand page; which looked most odd.

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.)

Arthur C Clarke Awards

These things come thick and fast this time of year…

This year’s Clarke Award short list is:-

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)
Europe at Midnight – Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton)
Arcadia – Iain Pears (Faber & Faber)
Way Down Dark – J.P. Smythe (Hodder & Stoughton)
Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)

Of the two I’ve read so far (for my reviews see links) I’d go for Europe at Midnight.
Of the others the Becky Chambers was on my intended reading list already.

Arcadia by Iain Pears

Faber and Faber, 2015, 728 p.

 Arcadia cover

This was shortlisted in 2016 for the Clarke Award. I can see why, but I also wonder why. A part of it is set in the future (two parts if you accept the book’s premise,) it deals with time travel and parallel worlds, yes, but one of the futures is rendered rudimentarily at best and some of the writing is … is sketchy too harsh? Yet, despite that, the book plays with genre. There is a spy story here – and a romance – to go along with the SF. Neither does it wear its allusions lightly. However, the information dumping is obtrusive and many of the characters read as if they are from stock casting. Zoffany Oldmanter in especial, as cartoon a Bond villain as you could wish for. The Clarke has a history of grabbing at SF from authors generally reckoned to come from outwith the genre. This may be an example of that. I do note however that Arcadia didn’t win (though the novel that did ought not to have when Europe at Midnight was on the shortlist.)

It all starts promisingly enough, with a 1960 academic, Professor Henry Lytten, describing to some of his colleagues the fantasy world he has invented (“‘I am creating the world,’”) and reading extracts from his novel set there. This gives Pears the ventriloquised opportunity to animadvert about C S Lewis’s “bloody bore of a lion” and how his invention of a world resulted in only a middle-class English suburb with a few swords. Pears also acknowledges early on a source of inspiration in Philip Sidney’s Arcadia.

Then Rosalind (Rosie,) the fifteen-year-old girl who looks after the Professor’s cat, while searching for it in his basement draws back a curtain on a glowing pergola (disguised as a sculpture) and steps through it into that exact fantasy world. This could have been an intriguing premise for the book but Pears then adds layers of complication with the addition of a scientific outpost on the island of Mull centuries in the future investigating the possibility of travelling between parallel worlds. The institute’s Director Hanslip refuses to believe that the mechanism produced to do this is actually a time machine, though its creator, Angela Meerson, knows it is since past and future are thoroughly inter-related, there is none without the other, cause and effect are mirror images. If the past changes so does the future, and vice versa. To resolve the departmental conflict she despatches various bodies, eventually including herself, through the machine. It is she, using the Professor’s notes, who has created the world beyond the portal in his basement.

That fantasy – now actual – world, Anterwold, is ruled by the Story, its primordial text to which all disputes are referred, and is a place where storytellers are lauded, “‘There is no higher achievement or honour in the world.’” An assertion to which Rosie replies (presumably as an acerbic comment by Pears himself,) “‘In that case, it must be a very different world from mine.’” It is more or less mediæval in tone, though apparently more kindly. Despite its flimsy nature it is there the most important aspects of the novel are worked out and it and the 1960 domestic setting both seem far more real to the reader than the future world, dominated by the authoritarian Oldmanter, from which Meerson has fled. In one of her ruminations she says of the English “whose lives were so dreary and constrained, the fanciful exuberance of the human spirit was forced to take refuge in the imagination, which was the only place it could exist without attracting disapproval.” (I did wonder, whatever would she make of the Scots… ?)

By way of information installed in the head of an agent sent by Hanslip to track down Meerson in (his) past we are also introduced to the concept of deep lies, “in which the speaker simultaneously says something he knows to be untrue and genuinely believes it nonetheless: politicians are particularly adept at this.” How true.

In her act of creation Meerson has set up a tension between past and future which can only be resolved by the elimination of one or other of the scenarios. To get there from here in the real world implies catastrophe. As part of the novel’s working out, the Professor himself appears in Anterwold as a literal deus ex machina where Rosie tells him, “‘You steal ideas from everyone.’” As does Pears whose Arcadia, partly as a result, is a bit of a curate’s egg.

Pedant’s corner:- Great-aunt Jessie (Great-Aunt Jessie,) New Year’s (New Year’s Eve that would be,) “took every scrap of paper referring to the missing cleaner and incinerated them” (incinerated it,) “‘the folly of mankind, their infinite capacity for self-importance’” (its infinite capacity,) Mr Williams’ (Williams’s,) span (spun,) imposter (I prefer impostor,) “‘for kindness’ sake’” (kindness’s,) staunched (stanched.)

Interzone: Issues 266 and 267

 Europe in Winter cover
Interzone 266 cover

Interzone issue 266 arrived yesterday. Along with the usual fiction and comment pieces this one contains my review of Revenger by Alastair Reynolds.

My next review, to appear in Interzone 267, will be of Europe in Winter, the third in Dave Hutchinson’s “Fractured Europe” sequence. I posted about its predecessors Europe in Autumn here and Europe at Midnight here.

BSFA Awards Lists

The BSFA has just announced the short list for this year’s awards (ie for works published in 2015.)

See this link for the full lists.

As far as the fiction is concerned the final nominees are

Best Novel:-

*Dave Hutchinson: Europe at Midnight, Solaris

*Chris Beckett: Mother of Eden, Corvus

Aliette de Bodard: The House of Shattered Wings, Gollancz

*Ian McDonald: Luna: New Moon, Gollancz

Justina Robson: Glorious Angels, Gollancz

Best Short Story:-

Aliette de Bodard: Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight, Clarkesworld 100

Paul Cornell: Witches of Lychford, Tor.com

*Jeff Noon: No Rez, Interzone 260

Nnedi Okorafor, Binti, Tor.com

Gareth L. Powell: Ride the Blue Horse, Matter

Of those, I have read the ones asterisked. That’s three out of the five novels and one of the five shorts. I look forward to receiving the usual booklet containing the short stories.

My 2015 in Books

This has been a good year for books with me though I didn’t read much of what I had intended to as first I was distracted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books and then by the threat to local libraries – a threat which has now become a firm decision. As a result the tbr pile has got higher and higher as I continued to buy books and didn’t get round to reading many of them.

My books of the year were (in order of reading):-
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Electric Brae by Andrew Greig
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman
The Affair in Arcady by James Wellard
Flemington and Tales from Angus by Violet Jacob
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi
Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison
The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andrić
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Born Free by Laura Hird
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

If you were counting that’s 25 in all, of which 15 were by male authors and 10 by women, 8 had SF/fantasy elements and 11 were Scottish (in the broadest sense of inclusion.)

The Great War Anniversary

One hundred years ago today, at midnight Central European Time, the event that shaped the twentieth century came into being. Or at least the British Empire’s participation in it began.

Germany had invaded Belgium that morning so we were a bit late. (A squad of Germans had invaded Belgium the previous evening but had jumped the gun – so to speak – not getting the delaying telegram in time and were recalled. They were soon back though.)

Yet those were not the first shots. Hostilities had started seven days earlier on 28th July when Austro-Hungarian troops opened fire on Serbia in response to the true first shots – the ones fired by Gavrilo Princip and which killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie but even those had their roots in the welter of national entanglements which plague the Balkans even yet.

Those entanglements were mirrored in the system of alliances that dictated that Germany had to attempt to defeat France first before swinging round to take on Russia and so necessitated a march through neutral Luxembourg and Belgium.

Ironies abounded. Without attacking Belgium, Germany might have avoided war with Britain and so the holding up of the German armies by the BEF at Mons and later the Allies at the battle of the Marne might not have succeeded and so gained Germany the victory in the west it desired. Russia managed to invade eastern Germany earlier than the Germans had anticipated and troops were hurriedly withdrawn fron the Western Front to face the threat which I believe was actually defeated at the Battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes before these reinforcements could get there.

The Great War is remembered for the bloody stalemate of the trenches yet in these first encounters when it was still a war of movement daily casualties were enormous – especially for the French – much higher than in most later battles; though the Somme has a grim reputation in Britain.

I heard a woman on BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought this morning say she refused to call it the Great War “as there was nothing great about it.” Wrong meaning of great I’m afraid.

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