Science fiction and fantasy                                            


by Eric Brown


Eric Brown's Engineman reminds me of the optimistic spirit of golden age science fiction. It's set in a wondrous future where FTL travel is not only possible but has actually been rendered obsolete by a technological advance that makes travel between planets instant. The galaxy is full of colonised worlds sporting exotic flora and fauna, and sentient aliens have even turned up. Sweet.

But progress comes at a price, and the greater the leap the more terrible the cost. The new Keilor-Vincicoff Interfaces that allow instant interstellar transport have displaced the Enginemen who used to push bigships through the nada-continuum. This leaves these former starship pilots without jobs, and suffering from withdrawal from the exquisite high that came with their connection to the continuum, also known as fluxing. Now that all the starship lines have closed down many ex-Enginemen choose suicide, in the firm belief that there is an afterlife where they will find peace and enlightenment.

Ralph Mirren is an ex-Engineman, but he's one of the few who don't accept the beliefs of the Church of Disciples. For Mirren, the Disciples' creed that everyone who dies will become part of the nada-continuum seems too perfect to ring true. He cares about this life because he can't believe in the next. So when a furtive stranger offers him the chance to pilot a ship once more he is justifiably suspicious. The disfigured man wants him to take a crew to a secret destination, but early on the mission attracts deadly attention. But can Mirren and his colleagues resist the temptation to take part, when fluxing draws them in with the force of the strongest drug of all?

Meanwhile in Paris, Ella Fernandez is living a broken life in a dilapidated part of a city in decline. Alien plants have invaded, their pollen floating in through the interface, and Paris is slowly giving way to jungle and entropy. It's a powerfully grim description. Ella is an emotionally fragile artist who decides she has to get out of the city when disaster strikes and she feels she has no choice but to try to mend old rifts.

On a distant colony world a small group of freedom fighters are preparing to take on an authoritarian organisation that rules large swathes of the galaxy. But why are they taking the trouble to persecute a small, peaceful sect? And what happened to the gentle aliens that used to live on that planet?

Engineman makes a good, meaty mystery full of twists and surprising revelations. Mortality and the brevity of this life are major themes, and you might reasonably suppose that this slant gives the novel a gloomy flavour. But whilst there are some very poignant personal tragedies and the odd starship graveyard, this isn't what I'd call a pessimistic story. The scale is vast, taking in not only our galaxy but also a whole new plane of existence, but that hugeness doesn't give you the sense of the futility of individuals because it matters what the characters do. The space age adventure in lush and varied settings is enough to inspire awe and envy. Eric Brown has created a future you'd want to spend time exploring and keep coming back to. However he does have a tough job trying to describe the indescribable sensations of being in contact with the absolute, because when the Enginemen flux it supposedly has to be experienced to be understood.

As well as the novel there are eight Engineman stories. Some of these feature characters from the novel, but most of them offer entirely fresh perspectives on the Engineman universe. The themes of art, death, afterlife and addiction are common threads running through a lot of these stories. They're clever, serious and quite moving, and they sparkle with a wholly appealing kind of wide-eyed enthusiasm for the future.

14th February 2011

Book Details

Decade: 1990s

Categories: Books

  Science fiction

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5 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson