By Paul Kincaid
Europe in Winter — Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
In 2015, when Europe at Midnight, the second part of Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence was published, one small province in Belgium was in the process of holding up a major transatlantic treaty for over a year; meanwhile in the UK General Election, the United Kingdom Independence Party (which, despite its name, does not support independence for any of the constituent parts of the UK) failed to win any further seats in Parliament, but still secured its main goal of a referendum on withdrawal from the European Union.
In 2016, when the third volume, Europe in Winter, was published, the Brexit Referendum, as it became known, resulted in a narrow victory for withdrawal from Europe, but still enough to initiate massive changes in the body politic of Europe and possibly lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom; meanwhile a right wing nationalist challenge for the presidency of Austria was only narrowly defeated.
Already in 2017, when the fourth volume in the Fractured Europe sequence is expected to be published, a nationalist government in Hungary has announced that it is building concentration camps for refugees, a right wing nationalist party in Holland increased its representation but not enough to play a part in the government, and right wing nationalist parties in France and Germany are expected to do well in elections later in the year; meanwhile, Brexit has been triggered.
Science fiction is not and never has been about predicting the future. But it is about using satire, extrapolation, exaggeration, distortion and any other tools at its disposal to reflect and comment upon the present. Right now, Europe is in a parlous state. The enterprise of friendship and cooperation that began in the wake of the Second World War is under unprecedented threat from the emergence of just such nationalist movements that it was deliberately conceived to counter. There are currently populist movements whose avowed aims are directly counter to the European ideal active and prominent in the UK, France, Holland, Germany, Italy, Austria, Greece, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere. This is the world we live in. It is not the world we encounter in contemporary science fiction.
The Fractured Europe sequence may not be a perfect way of bringing this modern world into science fiction, but since it is the only way that anyone is currently attempting, it is de facto the best.
There are things wrong with each of the novels in the sequence so far. For example, in both of the first two volumes the tension in the plotting slackened around two-thirds of the way through, leading to longueurs and an awkward need to ratchet the tension back up as the climax of the novel neared. And all three tend to be overly masculine in approach and characterisation, with women largely restricted to the role of victim or to playing a less significant part than we might initially have anticipated. (This last may, I suspect, be at least partly down to the model that Hutchinson has chosen for his series, which is unapologetically based upon the spy stories of John Le Carré.)
That said, however, I still believe that the Fractured Europe sequence is doing something important and needful, and doing it well.
In the beginning, Europe in Autumn presented a continent shattered into a myriad of tiny statelets. What we saw was how disconnected people felt from the broader state around them, let alone from the people of neighbouring lands. This was a selfish Europe, in which petty and often momentary self interest was sufficient to proclaim independence for a city block or an Estonian wildlife reserve or a transcontinental railway line or any of a host of other localities small enough to foster an impression of communal identity. This profusion of polities, each built, whether acknowledged or not, upon a fear and distrust of anyone from outside the locality, resulted in a mind-boggling network of criss-crossing borders. Good fences do not make good neighbours; instead they engender paranoia, suspicion and criminality. Hence the need for those who are able, legally or not, to make their way across the borders, transporting the goods, messages or travellers that need to pass unseen from one state to the next. The situation gives birth to the Coureurs, the secretive network of spies, smugglers, escorts and mailmen who provide the most vital function in a disconnected landscape, and who therefore generate the plot of the novel. Hutchinson wraps all of this up with a well-drawn and engaging central character, a ready wit, and an espionage plot worthy of Le Carré, so it is easy to miss the dark desperation of the situation; but it is there.
It is there even more overtly in the second volume, Europe at Midnight, which introduces a parallel world, the Community, that is a UKIP wet dream. It is Little England spread over the entire continent, its geography transformed into the rolling hills of the Home Counties, dotted with picturesque villages, its politics and culture and aspirations locked in the 1950s. And when you read beneath the sly jokes and the clever plotting, Hutchinson ruthlessly exposes this stultified world as dull, banal, and vicious. It was this benign nullity, after all that, through its pocket universe offshoot, the university, was responsible for unleashing the flu pandemic that created the conditions out of which the fragmentation of Europe arose. Before, that is, the university went in for a spot of atomic self-annihilation. To the despair of the first novel is now added disgust.
One of the more comic but telling passages in Europe at Midnight describes one enclosed polity, Dresden, which has made itself one of the richest in the continent thanks to its secretive computer services. The need to maintain absolute security has engendered paranoia, so tightly controlled are the borders that there is no way in or out. Except that when the sewers fail they have no way to repair them because Dresden has concentrated so totally upon its computer skills that there is no-one left to perform the thankless, routine tasks necessary for the maintenance of everyday life. Dresden reappears in Europe in Winter; its computer expertise makes for a telling intervention in the story, but it is still threatening at any moment to drown in its own shit. This is significant, because to despair and disgust this third volume now adds despoliation. The shattered Europe and the oppressively unified Community that we have been introduced to in the first two volumes may represent worlds that most of us would not welcome, but they at least seem to be functioning. Now we learn how misleading that impression is, because in Europe in Winter we witness a world that is steadily but inevitably failing.
The novel opens with a terrorist attack on the Line, the transcontinental railway that has become one of the more idiosyncratic statelets in this fractured Europe, a state that extends for thousands of miles yet is rarely more than a few hundred metres wide. The attack, which blocks the line somewhere in the Ural mountains, inevitably damages the commercial operation of the railway, but it also undermines the entire political raison d’être of the Line. And not only does no-one know who might be behind the attack, but the Line has no ability to respond to it. In this opening we see, in the starkest possible terms, the fragility of the entire world that Hutchinson has constructed. It sets the tone for everything that follows, because throughout the novel we encounter failing statelets, crumbling infrastructure, abandoned polities that have been re-absorbed into other states, increasing paranoia. The world is under attack, yes, and that provides the motivation for the novel’s plot; but the attack is pushing at an already open door, because nothing we see here is sustainable in the long term.
This instability that we see everywhere we look in the background of the novel echoes the various instabilities we see up front. There is, for instance, the insecurity of character as when Rudi discovers that his own father had two different birth certificates, both of which would appear to be genuine. This insecurity inevitably undermines everything that Rudi thought he knew about himself, and therefore throws into sharp relief the doubts and uncertainties with which the novel is littered. Not that Rudi is any more secure as a character. The first time we see him in Europe in Winter is in a passage that echoes the opening chapter of Europe in Autumn: he is working as a chef in a restaurant in Poland that is disrupted by Hungarian gangsters. But it turns out that this is a computer simulation, created by the savants in Dresden; inevitably everything is now in question, can we trust the reality of anything in this world? Nor is what we must tentatively call the real world any more stable: a portion of the Community suddenly turns up in a Luxembourg forest, while Heathrow Airport is mysteriously translocated to the Community. This last cuts to the very origin of it all, since we know from Hutchinson’s original short story, “On the Windsor Branch”, that the Community began as dislocation in an 18th century map of the Heathrow area.
Chef-turned-Coureur Rudi is once again the centre of the story, but even he is different now, older, damaged. He turns up, silent and unnamed on the edges of several scenes, recogniseable only by the walking stick that he now uses. And he is more cerebral, less prone to act himself; instead the focus shifts restlessly between a variety of secondary characters, some knowingly acting on his behalf, others caught in events beyond their experience where their only salvation lies in being drawn into his network. I have said elsewhere that if the Fractured Europe sequence is modelled on the spy stories of John Le Carré, then Europe in Winter is Hutchinson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with Rudi as the aging Smiley, the still centre of the book, patiently piecing together clues that will inevitably undermine his entire world. Yes, there is an outside enemy, a Karla if you like though in this case it is an unexpected organisation rather than an individual, pulling the strings, encouraging betrayals, exploding its metaphorical bombs. But this pseudo-Karla, like the original, plays no immediate part in the novel; instead, what matters here, as with Smiley, is what Rudi finds out about his own organisation, the Coureurs. It’s a novel where information, trust, and whatever solidity underlies the world are forever shifting and in doubt, and however much might be revealed, whatever Rudi and his agents might discover, they will only ever have a tentative and incomplete picture of what is going on.
Along the way we will witness assassinations, betrayals, chases, desperate escapes, sudden revelations. Hutchinson is good at this: keeping the action going, varying the pace, building tension, usually with a distinctive if often dyspeptic wit. One of the ways in which this novel is better than its predecessors is that there is no point where he allows the story to flag. But where the story really works is as a puzzle. We know that each scene, each of the constituent dramas that make up the novel, adds another piece to the puzzle, but we are never sure whether we have all the pieces, or what the picture is that they are meant to form. Reading the book is, as all good science fiction should be, a consistent and engaging mental exercise.
Is it, therefore, one of the best books of the year, is it deserving of a place on the Clarke Award shortlist? If I hesitate it is not because I have any doubt as to the quality of the novel. It is, as I have said, the best of the three novels in the sequence so far, and I regard it as one of the injustices of recent years that neither of those first two books came away with any of the awards for which they were shortlisted. Yet it is the third novel in a series: we already know Rudi, we already know the Community and the Fractured Europe; can there really be the novelty, the invention that such awards should recognise? Still, the sequence as a whole is following a course, reflecting and reconsidering our contemporary reality in a way that science fiction should be doing and mostly isn’t. And it is doing this well, painting a complex picture that is yet accessible and engaging and entertaining and rewarding, novels marked by well-constructed stories, good writing and endless invention. Furthermore, in this latest volume he takes the familiar and turns it around, reinvents it, makes it new once more, and uses that reinvention to turn the sequence in a new and invigorating direction. For all of those reasons, I feel that yes, it does deserve a place on the Clarke shortlist. And as Europe continues its fragmentation around us, it is a novel that continues to feel relevant and important.
Paul Kincaid was one of the founders of the Arthur C. Clarke Award; he served as a judge for its first two years, and administered the Award from 1996 to 2006. He co-edited The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology with Andrew M. Butler. He has contributed to numerous books and journals, and is the author of two collections of essays and reviews: What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction and Call And Response. His book on Iain M. Banks is forthcoming from University of Illinois Press. He has received the Thomas Clareson Award from the SFRA, and the Best Non-Fiction Award from the BSFA.