Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Microreview [book] : Hollow World , by Michael J. Sullivan

Sullivan, Michael J.  - Hollow World, The (2014, Tachyon)

Pre-Order Hollow World
He also is ensuring all buyers of the print copies will get his e-book free too!

Well, at the risk of jinxing myself, I seem to be on a lucky streak with the books I'm picking to review for Nerds of A Feather. To be fair, I had heard good things about Sullivan's work before, particularly The Riyria Revelations, and so this wasn't a random choice. If it had been, though, the great cover would have lead me in like those evil wine companies who put cool labels on the bottle to make you think it'll taste better. In this case though, we have a fine Malbec : powerful yet palatable, exotic yet familiar -  and ok the wine comparison is slipping but - full of impossible fantasy yet feeling entirely emotionally-true.

By fantasy, however, I don't mean in genre terms. In fact Sullivan has stated on his blog and kickstarter campaign for the novel that he was keen to transcend genre, and if he was to 'label' it in any way it would be more traditional, elderly sci-fi, of the Wells and Asimov persuasion. Wells is mentioned in the introduction here too, for Hollow World owes much to The Time Machine (although that is a little like saying rock owes much to blues, or cheese to milk). Yet this is a much richer, complex book than Wells could have imagined writing or a reader of his time accepting. The science can take a backseat to the human drama because we don't need convincing. After decades of leaps-into-the-future fiction in many forms, we are educated and aware, and ready to suspend disbelief as someone jumps through a portal , or revs up a DeLorean.

Here, our time-traveller is Ellis Rogers, a gentle and beaten man, sleep-walking through a sad life until he is given a terminal diagnosis and allows himself one last adventure, with a homemade machine based on having secretly solved a long-ignored theory. Leaving his empty marriage behind, he zaps himself from his Detroit garage to... And here I almost want to stop the review, to afford you, if you choose, the same ignorance of where and in what time he finds himself as I had. Therefore if you want to keep things a mystery, please skip the next paragraph for a spoiler-free wrap up. I may mention some names or moments in there, but I'll try not to. But I won't promise anything; I've not writen thet bit yet. I haven't even spell-checked the last sentence. See you in a minute.

Ellis arrives in 4078, somewhat overshooting his target of a couple of centuries hence. But instead of flying cars and towering cities, nature has reclaimed the planet from humans after cataclysmic storms forced us into underground caverns. Over time, as technology advanced and humans evolved into sexless copies of each other, this became Hollow World (a nice nod, perhaps to all those Hollow World conspiracy theorists out there). Ellis is plunged a little neatly straight into a murder mystery which soon expands into a political conspiracy. In doing so, however, he first meets first a future-human called Pax and Sullivan wisely keeps the focus intimate and domestic as Pax takes him home, allowing our hero - and us -  time to assimilate this future reality without being rushed through violently like Charlton or Keanu, the poor chaps. Ellis gets the computer butler to make him coffee and he introduces Pax to the concept of sarcasm. He wonders at the alien nature of his new existence and mourns for the past and the mistakes he made. This is no blank protagonist, no meat puppet to be our eyes in this fantasy world, but a complex and aged person with quirks and flaws. Sullivan knows the matters of the heart hit home more strongly than any razzle-dazzle of imagination. Only then do we start a more turbulent whirl through the plot, and I'll keep that vague even from spoiler-junkies like you, as it is absorbing and very enjoyable.

Welcome back, mystery-fans. You missed an incredible paragraph. Some laughs, and many tears. Trouser tears. Oh well, you made your choice. So, for you and your less timid peers, I offer a final recommendation to seek this book out. If sci-fi or fantasy have left you feeling a little tired of late, like myself - there are simply too many books out there, too many spins of the same tune - this novel is, even more perhaps than Lagoon recently , a real tonic. The ability Sullivan has to describe the world Ellis finds himself in without losing sight of how Ellis would be feeling is admirable, and he keeps things light on their feet and frequently humorous, avoiding the solemn tone of so much future sci-fi. Details of, and reasons behind Hollow World and its inhabitants are richly told within the context of the characters' actions and not submitted as clunky, stodgy lumps of educative exposition. The central plot felt a tiny bit too neatly inserted, like a device to add some action and purpose rather than something naturally grown from events, but it was suspenseful and complex, and entertaining, and ended up forcing the hand of all the players to fully show the nature of Hollow World. For all I wondered what a simple slice-of-life tale might have been - just a walk with Ellis into this new universe, with no real dramas, could have been a joy - I also loved this crime story within a political thriller within a sci-fi adventure. Most of all, though, I loved the central characters and the superbly detailed emotional architecture of each scene. Ellis's thoughts were idiosyncratic yet entirely relatable, and his friendship with Pax was moving, surprising and, well, daring, in the context of genre (or multi-genre) fiction. 

This is a superb time travelling tale, full of imagination and intrigue, and Sullivan has kickstarted the literary sub-genre as successfullly as I felt Primer did in film. Yet it is more than an exercise in genre; it is a wonderful book. Many times in the reading of this I lost myself pleasantly - I missed my stop on the tube and on the bus, and forgot to go to bed til two one weeknight, and the cat had stolen my side of the mattress. Thanks for that, author. You also ruined the finale of The Walking Dead as I was reading in the ad breaks and kept having to rewind back over the biting and stabbing which really killed the suspense. Shame on you.

The Math

Objective Assessment : 8/10

Bonuses : +1 for managing to breathe fresh air into an old set-up and putting modern, intelligent emotions and politics into a fun, futuristic adventure; +1 for keeping character ahead of plot all the way, and ensuring Ellis's internal journey was the real heart of the matter.

Negatives : - 1 in a world so far ahead in time, shorn of history, it still felt all perhaps a little too familiar and very American in flavour; either a flaw or an intentional move , it killed some of the culture shock for me of what Ellis encounters.

Nerd Coefficient : 9/10 Early contender for book of the year ( how our scores work )

Written by English Scribbler, Nerds contributor since 2013. If he had a time machine he would go to all the years in that old Zager and Evans song and then report back to them so they could be more certain in the lyrics.