Reading Guardians of the Phoenix in the wake of Alastair Reynolds' talk got me thinking about Eric Brown's work; whereas Reynolds, and much other contemporary science fiction, has a deep pessimism amongst the trappings of optimism (space flight), Brown has it the other way round.  This novel on its front is deeply, deeply pessimistic about the future... and yet, if you can read through it and not have an overriding sense of hope by the end, it would be a strange accomplishment.

The characters of the novel are a mixed bunch.  Whilst Dan, Kath, Ed and Paul are well drawn, and Xian, for all the brevity of her appearances, is a poignant and beautiful character of the past, the villains of the piece - and they are clearly villains - are really terribly two-dimensional, Samara and Hans both being bluntly boring characters, just straightforwardly villainous without any real depth, especially in the case of the psychopathic and bluntly evil Hans.  Our heroes, on the other hand, are a bunch of people doing good and trying to keep civilisation going in the face of a post-collapse world, after nuclear wars and global warming have taken a huge toll; they're interesting, well-written and well-rounded characters.  They each have different histories and backgrounds, and have dark impulses and imperfect lives; they are also emotional, and so we do have moments when the reader will be in tears because, as in his other works, Brown knows how to really play the heartstrings and draw out pathos.

The plot is very much a mixed bag, like the characters.  The survival-story is wonderful, and the quest; it's detailed, interesting, plausible and with a really good combination of worldbuilding and exploration, with the future-history neatly incorporated into the wider plot and the state of the world revealed slowly and neatly.  However, the inclusion of Hans drives a violent little subplot that really isn't necessary; the brutal horrors of how some choose to survive, as encapsulated by Samara, would have been far better served by the loss of Hans from the plot and a quieter, subtler contrast of Samara and Dan as leaders of colonies.  It also takes something from the discovery element of the plot, because suddenly there's artificial conflict; not every novel, to my mind, has to have this sort of blunt violent confrontation near the climax...

Overall, this is a beautiful, hopeful book, but I can't whole-heartedly endorse it; two-dimensional villains plague the novel, and the artificial crowbarring in of the violent plot makes Guardians of the Phoenix something of a mixed bag.  Decent, but sadly not quite up to the excellent standard I've come to expect of Brown.
Brown's novel, apparently ten years in the making, deals with a theme similar to that of Kéthani: immorality, and some of its consequences; albeit a different kind of immortality in a different kind of world.  Like Kéthani, it is profoundly human, sympathetic and character driven, though the cast is far smaller and moer compact than his earlier effort, and the novel is stronger as a result; and it is a strong novel, indeed.

Brown's characters - a cast which, inevitably, shrinks as the novel progresses and the two halves come together with the inevitability of a speeding train (what is played as a big reveal is obvious to the reader, and I think Brown knows it - that big reveal has an even bigger tongue in its cheek); the Langhams are deeply sympathetic, interesting, human and humane characters, damaged and wounded and wanting to love and be loved but so defensive it is almost impossible.  It's a beautiful, dark portrayal of human love and human nature as it changes, matures and finds others like itself; sweet, kind, and loving, Brown really clearly feels deeply for his characters, and makes us fall for them and into them too.

The plot is relatively simple; it's more about human relationships, and human growth, than about any set of events or occurences - indeed, it's basically literature, in that regard (shock, horror!).  This is not by any means a criticism: Brown's analysis and portrayal of relationships and growth is so carefully done, so poignant and powerful - Langham Sr's death, and Sam's, both bring tears to the eyes of the readers, quite seriosuly so, and they're not alone in doing so, because Brown knows how to make one feel deeply for our characters' pain. He also knows how to make the characters happy, indeed overjoyed, and even when we can sometimes see inevitable sadness or betrayal, we do have a certain amount of pleasure in the fleeting happiness; somehow Brown makes it work, beautifully so.

The Kings of Eternity has been described as 'reinvent[ing] the scientific romance for a new century' by Stephen Baxter.  I don't think he's at all wrong, and Eric Brown has written a masterful, powerful, stylish and beautiful novel; if you're ready to have your heartstrings jerked, and have subtle, human emotions dealt with beautifully, The Kings of Eternity is the novel for you.
Kéthani is a profoundly philosophical and, on my reading of it, theological novel; Eric Brown’s collection of short stories (linked, in similar fashion to something like Asimoz’s I, Robot, by common characters and themes) is profoundly transformative in outlook and concept, and at least in my reading of it, profoundly religious.
The characters of Brown’s collection-cum-novel are profoundly and deeply human, in a very strong sense of the term; it’s clear that this is his concern, the impact of the arrival of the Kéthani and their promise upon people. That this is so human-centred as science fiction sets up some interesting elements; it allows Brown to explore a variety of different responses, of different personalities, and indeed different kinds of stories; but at root it comes down to the characters and their profound responses, and profound optimism, at the changes wrought by the Kéthani.
The plot revolves around the changes, over time, brought about amongst a small group of British men (with one or two exceptions – Sam and Mrs Emmett especially, both very strong, well-written characters) in a series of episodes, the short stories from which (with bridging-passages) the novel is made up of. Actually, Brown manages to make the stories flow very well; the police procedural/locked room mystery fits with the romances and the stories of love betrayed really rather well, because of the sense pervading each that it is the humanity of the characters that is at issue.
I think that what I said at the start, about the profoundly religious character of the novel, holds very strongly true. Kéthani is a novel about the human spirit and character, but it’s also a novel about eternity and the human response to it; it’s a novel about the human response to knowledge of something immeasurably greater than each individual person. It’s interesting, in the light of that interpretation, to note the parallels between the Kéthani and God in the novel; well-done certainly, and of mixed subtlety, but it works well.
All in all, Kéthani is a book about religion for both the non-religious and the religious, intensely humanist (in the older sense of the word), and very much science fiction. Eric Brown’s work, based on this, is absolutely fantastic, and I shall have to look into more of it!


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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