Given how much of 2020 has progressed so far, I could forgive myself for reading “comfortable” books; the kind that would help me deal with and take me away from this constant feeling of existential dread and anxiety. But if you scroll down my Goodreads list, you will see I’ve read very few books you could describe as “comfortable” (with the greatest respect to authors who cater for that market: it’s much needed). At the end of the day, all the books I’ve read this year so far have captured the essence of humanity: it’s hopes and dreams, its triumphs and failures, its birth and its death. One such book has stood out this year, and is a perfect example of what it takes to be human and to survive against hopeless odds, is The Luminous Dead, the debut novel from American author Caitlin Starling.
Set on another planet, in a far-flung dystopian future, The Luminous Dead is a book about Gyre Price, a potholer who was raised on a mining colony. She lies about her experience and credentials and basically bluffs her way into a high-stakes job offering the kind of money to help her get off-planet and find her mother, who abandoned her years earlier. Gyre has issues, but then again so does her handler, Em, who literally pulls Gyre’s strings from above-ground. Gyre and Em need to trust each other, but it’s plain from the off that they don’t. And this mistrust could get Gyre killed. Or worse: she could become a ghost, destined to haunt the caves until the next expedition comes around.
This isn’t Em’s first attempt to find the rich mineral deposits in these caves. Without giving too much away, Gyre’s handler has other deeply personal reasons in urging her charge downwards and into danger. Constant gear malfunctions, missing supplies, and the supremely creepy presense of Tunnellers, subterranean creatures who dwell in the shadows and can literally pop up anywhere, add to the notion that Gyre might not make it out in one piece, if at all.
The Luminous Dead sticks with Gyre’s POV throughout, without making it a first person narrative. This is a difficult form of storytelling to pull off, the challenge being that the author needs to keep the reader engaged with both the action around the main character and her innermost thoughts. And this won’t be for everyone. Readers expecting a balls-to-the-wall action adventure along the lines of Alien and Neil Marshall’s 2005 horror movie set in a cave, The Descent, will come away feeling short-changed. So it’s important to note that while there are plenty of death-defying sequences within the book, this is equally a two-hander piece of speculative fiction that keeps the story moving forward because we are so invested in Gyre and Em. These are young women, at times working with and against one another, but with a similar endgame in mind. It’s a human thing in times of crises to fall into distrust and disbelief, but when it comes to the crunch, inevitably we have to trust someone, even if that someone is ourself.
The Luminous Dead is rich in atmosphere, and is in equal parts a science fiction thriller, a horror story, a psychological drama, and — yes — a delightfully queer love story. As debuts go, Caitlin Starling has put herself on the map, with her novel nominated for a Locus Award, a Bram Stoker Award, and winner of the Ladies of Horror Fiction Award for Best Debut Novel. She recently released Yellow Jessamine, a dark fantasy novella that I will no doubt read and review in the very near future.
I picked a bad time to read a series of books about a Europe ravaged by the after-effects of a global pandemic, a refugee crisis, terrorism, and the break-up of the EU itself. But here we are. Dave Hitchinson’sFractured Europesequence is the ultimate in literary What If? for our time. Allow me to take you through this quartet, and introduce you to Rudi.
An Estonian, working in a restaurant in Krakow, Rudi’s exceptional talents keep him gainfully employed in an economy that’s pretty much gone to hell. One evening at the restaurant, Rudi is approached by a representative of an underground organisation called the Couriers des Bois. His nationality could be of use to them, and they need someone to move a package across the many borders across the continent. Europe has become so segmented over the years that practically any entity, be it a statelet or national park, can declare independence and have its own border control process.
In Europe in Autumn, Rudi goes from being a cook to a spy. It’s impossible to swat away John le Carre vibes here. Rudi has to learn as he goes, and although he has support from the organisation, he’s very much on his own for much of the novel. His instructor/mentor is MIA, presumed traitorous. And his friends and family become targets of whomever is behind the “Great Conspiracy”. And oh, what a conspiracy it is!
Sometime in the 19th century, a family of English cartographers, map-makers, brought into existence a parallel Europe, and somehow this Europe, populated in the main by English people, and accessible from very few places in our Europe. Yes, it’s a head-scratcher. Dave Hutchinson moves from near-future spy fiction to the realm of fantasy. And it works, because throughout the book, we see everything through Rudi’s eyes. We’re as flummoxed as he is, but there’s a job to do and people to protect, so like James Bond and George Smiley, we want to get to the bottom of this mess.
Europe at Midnight takes us to the Campus, a university nation-state that’s both within and without the Community, the parallel Europe. It’s also the site where the flu virus was manufactured, and there’s also a nucleur weapon. Rudi has very little to do in this instalment, instead we follow Jim, who works for British intelligence. A stabbing on a London bus begins the intrigue, and in a story where the chronology of events has to be worked out by the reader, it’s a captivating puzzle that when worlds finally collide, some questions are answered, but inevitably many more take their place.
Europe in Wintersees the return of Rudi. It opens with the suicide bombing of an important railway tunnel operated by the Line, a network that crosses continental Europe and is a nation state itself. Think Amtrak, but you need a passport and travel documents to board. Awareness of the Community is widespread, and diplomatic relationships are struck up between the different European universes. Characters from previous books make an appearance, and the action includes assassinations, perilous travels between worlds, and a revision of history as we know it. There’s a wonderful sequence of events at the end involving an airport that I will not spoil here. You will have to read it for yourself.
In the last (presumably, but with Dave Hitchinson you never know) of the sequence, Europe at Dawn, there is a resolution of sorts for the disparate storylines, but also gives space to introduce new and important characters. There is murder, mayhem, chases, and escapes. There is a sublime subplot about a bejewelled skull in the possession of a travelling folk group that by the end of the book, it all makes some sort of sense. But not everything gets resolved; there’s no “and they all lived happily ever after”. But I remain very much okay with that.
The above summaries do little justice to the themes and events that run throughout Fractured Europe. I need to point out that at times, the books are very funny. There’s an almost Terry Pratchett feel to them. Dave Hutchinson’s attention to detail and knowledge of world and European history permeates each page and character. The new future world of which he writes is grey and mundane, but the story is rich in atmosphere. If John le Carre were to write speculative fiction as a spy story, he could not do a better job than Dave Hutchinson. He is a writer for and of our times.
I spent much of the early part of this year reading James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, ploughing through books two to eight in a couple of months. Now, like all fans, I eagerly anticipate the final book, Leviathan Falls, which is due out some time in 2021. I’ve been on the lookout for other series to take its place, and I know there are plenty out there, but I felt a need for character-driven space opera rather than out-and-out humans-v-aliens action adventure. Becky Chambers‘ Wayfarers series was always on the cards as a must-read, and now I’m wondering why it took me so long to get there.
Wayfarersis a four book series, beginning with The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet. Published in 2015, originally via a Kickstarter campaign, Becky’s debut found its audience and was nominated for major prizes, such as the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the British Fantasy Awards. It was also the first self-published novel to be nominated for the Kitschies, which “rewards the year’s most progressive, intelligent, and entertaining fiction that contains elements of the speculative or fantastic.” In short, publishing dynamite. The reasons for this are plentiful.
Ashby Santoso is the captain of the Wayfarer, a ship that creates tunnels through space, wormholes basically, allowing access to distant planets, galaxies, and markets. This function is vital to the stability and economy of the Galactic Commons (GC), a federation in which Humanity is its most recent member. Ashby understands that a ship is only as good as its crew, and in this regard, his crew is the most diverse, talented, unique, and loyal group of people the GC has ever mustered up.
Joining the team is Rosemary Harper, and she serves as our introduction to both Becky Chambers’ universe and its inhabitants. Rosemary enlists as a file clerk under false pretenses. She’s on the run from her past, but at the same time wants to see what else is out there. Luckily enough she is good at her job, even if her presence riles Artis Corbin, the ship’s algaeist. He has the important job of growing the ship’s fuel and nothing or no one else is really important to him. Also on board is Sissix, an Aandrisk, who along with Ohan, a Sianat Pair, pilot and navigate the Wayfarer. Jenks and Kizzy are the ship’s technicians, with Jenks enjoying a very special and beautiful relationship with the ship’s AI, Lovelace, AKA Lovey. Rounding off the crew is Dr Chef, a Grum, who also serves as a kind of therapist for his shipmates.
The main thrust of Small Angry Planet is the crew’s mission to tunnel a wormhole through to a new system that has been granted provisional membership of the GC. It’s a journey that will take some time, a ‘standard’, which I believe is more than a year. The passing of time is denoted differently to ours: where we would say week, the citizens of the GC say tendays, which I think is self-explanatory. The trek is not without its perils. The Wayfarer encounters space pirates, heretics, and saboteurs. But action doesn’t drive the plot; it’s characters do.
Along the way we get to know the crew through beautiful and surprising revelations. The story is told in multiple POVs, but never once does Becky Chambers lose clarity in voice or thought. While not an action-orientated adventure, the set-pieces when they come are dramatic, and often reveal depths to each of the characters in the novel. Their individual stories are the bedrock upon which the author sets her stall, and they are in turn inspiring, poignant, heart-breaking, and despite the presence of alien beings, so very human.
This is a story about family, and not just the one we’re born into: it’s about the family we chose for ourselves as we travel through life and the stars. Rosemary’s secret, when it does come to light, doesn’t affect how the crew sees her as a person, but it becomes a way for her to grow more into herself, and her relationship with Sissix especially is more powerful as a result.
The events at the end of Small Angry Planet allows Becky take us down another path. Book two in the series, A Closed And Common Orbit, is effectively a stand-alone sequel, with the focus on Lovelace, the AI, who takes human form, an action that is illegal in the GC. Lovelace’s new body, or “kit”, has its advantages and disadvatages, and through the course of Common Orbit, we see her and her friend Pepper, a friend of Jenks who comes to the ship’s rescue in the previous novel, negotiate the new normal. Two stories run concurrently. Lovelace’s search for the meaning of existence as she seeks to understand the importance of intimate relationships, as well as having a program that forbids her to lie, is the inital focus. Learning to bend the truth a little bit is vital for her survival. Pepper’s story is equally relevant, and we discover how she came to be. When Owl is introduced, I read her voice as one of my very dearest friends, and she gave me great comfort. I’m not ashamed to say that I found Pepper’s story very emotional and how the two strands in the novel work out hit me in my core. Pepper’s best friend, Blue, is magnificent. And Tak, Lovelace’s friend and tattoo artist, completes this fantastic four.
Book three has a different approach altogether. Record Of A Spaceborn Few choses as its focus five characters who live on board a generation ship that’s part of the Exodan Fleet, among them Tessa, the sister of Captain Ashby Santoso from Small Angry Planet. The Fleet represents what’s left of Humanity after it left Earth when it became uninhabitable. Granted GC citizenship and given a star of its own to orbit, the Exodan’s journey has come to an end. But what happens now? Spaceborn Few follows five main characters as they deal with the aftermath of a major catastrophe that occurs in the novel’s prologue. Apart from Tessa, we inhabit the lives and innermost thoughts of Isabel, the Fleet’s archivist, who is playing host to a visiting Harmaegeon, a GC elite who wishes to learn about the Fleet and Humanity; Eyas, a “caretaker’, who respectfully and ritualistically deals with the bodies of those who have died (basically turning them into compost); Kip, a teenage boy who wants nothing more than to leave the Fleet as soon as he’s able to; and finally Sawyer, a man who comes from the “bad side of town” and joins the Fleet looking for a new life.
Like the preceding books in the series, Spaceborn Few has a theme. Small Angry Planet is about family. Common Orbit is, I think, about identity: who we are, how others perceive us, and how we preceive ourselves. Spaceborn Few is about home. Wherever it is, can we be happy there? Can we find our truth and our heart, or do we need to look further ahead? Will we ever find acceptance among people who are not us? Sometimes its not enough to just have a place to live; we need a place to be and to connect. Becky Chambers’ forte is getting inside her character’s heads. In learning so much about them, we find out similar things about ourselves and our humanity. It’s a beautiful thing, but it’s not always comfortable to read home truths.
Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series is a beautifully written and deeply personal work of literary and speculative fiction. It probably won’t appeal to readers who like an explosion or gun battle every second chapter, although there are some great examples of both throughout all three books. It does, however, speak to the individual on what it means to be alive during times of crises and uncertainty. Each book found a place in my heart, and with a fourth and possibly final novel, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, due out in 2021, it looks like I’ll have to find more room. Winner of the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Series,Wayfarers is majestic, epic in scope, but initmate in focus. It speaks to the human in each of us.