Item: Hutchinson, Dave. Europe in Autumn [Solaris, 2014]
File under: science fiction, dystopia, spy thriller
This is yet another superbly-realised sci-fi novel from Solaris; they seem to have a particular knack for finding writers whose penchant is for stories set in a world we can imagine coming about. Hutchinson's vision is of a Europe in fractured disorder, at some point in the later half of this century.
No flying machines, no moon bases, no robot slaves overthrowing us. Instead we find ourselves on a continent not too distant from how it is now, despite cataclysmic changes. A virus has wiped out tens of millions and the EU has collapsed, leaving dozens of new nation states sprouting up everywhere. Bickering and infighting take the place of diplomacy and currency exchange rates and transport problems keep the populace in check. Yet this isn't some over-the-top dystopia of nightmarish madness; people go about their lives, complain about badly cooked food, go shopping, worry about rent.
In this place of borders, multi-lingual migrants and immigration security we find quiet yet confident Latvian restaurant cook Rudi ("I'm a chef!"), who via his connected boss in Krackow begins doing little jobs for the local mafiosi. As he wrestles with the demands and confusion of odd trips to lonely cities and across checkpoints, he slowly is trained up by a senior 'courier' to become a trans-European smuggler and spy. The detail and patience with which his induction is told is totally absorbing. The author takes time to gently let the recent history of this Europe leak out in fragments, avoiding the usual traps of awkward exposition with refreshing ideas, simply told. Even a passage explaining a cross-continental railway line's faltering construction fascinates.
As Rudi is sucked deeper into the world of espionage and becomes a full-time 'Coureur', truths are revealed and the book could have ended up as sub-rate spy thriller (on a side note, though obviously indebted to the thrillers of the Cold War, Polish characters directly referencing Le Carre and Deighton seemed odd to me). Yet Hutchinson's knack with sharp dialogue and subtle action, as well as surprising twists, kept me hooked.
Rudi in particular is a fine creation - cynical yet imaginative, selfish yet compassionate, he makes for a great hero. However, it is the time the writer takes with his tale that really makes the novel shine for me. After a climatic moment in Berlin with a Coreur's severed head (which the back-cover blurb suggests is a key moment), instead of a Bourne-esque car chase or race against time, there is a pause, a calm meeting with superiors several weeks later, then a family get-together and quiet reflection. Not, perhaps, sounding like heart-stopping stuff, but the narrative builds and builds from this strategy, forming complex situations and complete characters. For once this is a downbeat future I'd actually quite like to visit, but for now am content with having read one of the more mature, considered and entertaining sci-fi novels I've encountered in a long time.
Baseline Assessment: 8/10
Bonuses: +1 for depth, pacing and invention rare in spy thrillers, and down-to-earth realism rare in sci-fi
Penalties: -1 for perhaps not being quite as explosive and exciting as I, guiltily and shallowly, would have liked at the end.
Nerd co-efficient : 8/10
POSTED BY: English Scribbler, reviewer, film fanatic, lapsed book worm, Archer fan and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2013.