Want to read one of the very best science fiction books of the year? Then get hold of Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson right now. His previous novel, Europe in Autumn, was shortlisted for a fistful of awards. I have a feeling that this follow up will go one better. Certainly it deserves to win something.
Why do I think Europe at Midnight is one of the best books of the year?
It’s a follow up to Europe in Autumn, but it’s not a direct sequel. That previous novel was set in a near-future Europe that was fragmenting, independent statelets were springing up all over the place, some no bigger than a city block. Some statelets were established by criminals, some as a defence against incomers, some for economic reasons; one national forest is turned into an independent state to protect it from developers; and there is a railway line from Portugal to Russia that has declared itself an independent state thousands of miles long but only a few yards wide.
The story concerns an Estonian chef, Rudi, working in a restaurant in Poland. His Estonian passport means he can cross borders that a Polish passport wouldn’t allow, so he is asked to make a delivery. This leads him to the coureurs, an international, semi-criminal organisation that specialises in getting messages, packages or people across the myriad of new borders that criss-cross Europe. Rudi becomes one of the most adept of the coureurs, but his very success brings him to the attention of some very dangerous characters and also attracts the attention of the intelligence community. He also starts to discover borders that shouldn’t exist.
It was a timely book (in 2014, the year it came out, there were independence votes in regions within at least three European states, Scotland, Catalonia in Spain and the Eastern Ukraine), it was also one of the most inventive and original works of science fiction there has been for many years. It would have been easy, therefore, to write a story that continued the adventures of Rudi and reveal a little more detail about the jigsaw puzzle of Europe (that railway line is fascinating, why not go back there?).
But that is exactly what Hutchinson does not do in the new book. Rudi does appear, very briefly on the last page, but this is not his story. We do visit one more statelet, Dresden, which has become one of the richest of all polities because of the computer security it offers. But that security comes at the expense of paranoia, a high wall has been erected all around the statelet and no-one is allowed to enter or leave. Which is all very well, until the sewers fail and they don’t have anyone who can fix them. The mordant humour of this situation is typical of the sly comedy that runs all the way through the book. But those two brief incidents are all that tie this new novel directly to its predecessor. One of the things that makes Europe at Midnight so good is that he has taken an original idea and instead of milking it he has rethought it, and come up with something fresh.
Instead he turns back to an idea he first developed in a short story a few years ago (as I explained here). That story introduced us to eccentric 18th century map makers who mapped an imaginary county west of London, and the map became the territory. Now, that county of Ernshire occupies not only the land territory of Britain but most of Europe as well; in contrast to the fragmented political landscape of this reality, there are no borders dividing up that parallel reality because it is all one state. But it is a conservative, undynamic realm, a place of hardship for the poor and luxury for the rich but where dissent is never allowed to get started. The new novel moves between these two realities, and also into a third pocket universe, the University, which seems to exist somewhere close to Nottingham. This seems to have been set up deliberately as a safe place for weapons research, but things have got dangerously out of hand. As the novel opens there has already been one civil war within the university, and tensions continue to threaten. When our hero, who calls himself Rupert of Henzau, manages to escape from the University into this reality, he does so only just ahead of the explosion of a nuclear weapon that destroys all life in the University.
Where the first novel followed one character, Rudi, this new book divides its attention between two. As well as Rupert, there is Jim, a harrassed member of the British security service who is called on to investigate the stabbing of an asylum seeker on a bus in North London, and who consequently finds himself drawn into a secret government committee dedicated to investigating Ernshire.
As a chef, Rudi frequently interrupted his adventures to talk about food, it made him a particularly interesting individual. Neither Rupert nor Jim has such a quirk, so they seem a little colourless by comparison, but they are still engaging figures who lead us through a dizzyingly complex plot.
In Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson has built upon a stunningly original work without slavishly repeating it. Through the characters of Rupert and Jim he has given us a gripping, spy-based story that would keep us turning the pages even without the startling revelations about the worlds within which it is set. Read it, I think you’ll agree it has to be one of the best books of the year.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.