Here be Dragons

This is a break away from fantasy for the author, but not very far. It’s technically science fiction – a guy builds a time machine in his Detroit garage, and after a diagnosis of terminal cancer he decides he has nothing to lose by trying it out. He sets things up for a jump two hundred years into the future, where, if he’s really lucky and survives the jump at all, there may be a cure. But – oops, slight miscalculation, and here we are two thousand years on. There’s a certain amount of arm-waving about quantum this and that, but the sciencey bits are not what this is all about. To be honest, it felt a lot like a portal story, where an ordinary joe from the present day finds himself in – well, alternate universe, past, future, whatever. So I’d say it’s as much fantasy as science fiction.

The future the author draws for the reader is an interesting one. Humans have abandoned the surface of the planet altogether after a series of ecological disasters destabilised everything, and now live in the Hollow World of the title, giant caverns using advanced technology to recreate a pseudo-earth environment. Given the ability to create pretty much everything they need, people fill their days with art, or entertainment, travelling through portals or – well, whatever they want to do. They are also immortal, and virtually everyone is build to a universal genderless pattern, the only way to distinguish one individual from another being a chip embedded in one shoulder. Again, there’s a certain amount of arm-waving over the science, but it worked perfectly well for me.

If the science isn’t a big part of the story, the author brings his traditional strengths to bear – compelling characters and an action-packed roller-coaster of a ride that leaves you on the edge of your seat. There are murders and mysterious people who are trying to kill our hero, a renegade setting himself up as a cult leader, a conspiracy and finally a big world-ending threat that has to be tackled head on because the clock is ticking… There were moments when I had to put the book down momentarily to remind myself to breathe.

As for the characters, there’s only one who matters – Pax, the genderless future-person, one of millions of identical people, who nevertheless turns out to be very much an individual. You wouldn’t think it possible for a clone (and that’s essentially what he is) to be differentiated from his/her/its compatriots, but Pax is one of those characters who just leaps off the page, larger than life and quite unforgettable. Because he’s neither male nor female, almost everything he does, or rather the way he does it, calls into question our own attitudes to the two genders. Just writing this paragraph underlines the difficulty – I’ve resorted to called Pax ‘he’ by default, and he Pax isn’t either he or she. It’s a testament to Mr Sullivan’s writing skill that he (definitely a he! even without the famous moustache, now sadly consigned to history) side-steps the issue so deftly. I don’t think he ever uses a gendered pronoun for any of the Hollow World residents. I’ll admit to not being too sure about Pax to start with (we do like to put everyone in boxes, and you just can’t with Pax), but by the mid-point Pax was definitely my favourite character.

The rest of the characters, even our time travelling hero himself, Ellis, seem a bit grey and dull by comparison. His pal Warren is something of a caricature, his wife Peggy never gets a chance to shine, and few of the Hollow World residents stand out (Sol, maybe, and the AI vox Alva, with an honourable mention for the Geomancers – I loved their yay! a crisis! attitude). It’s not at all that they’re poorly drawn (they’re mostly great characters and in other circumstances I’d be raving about them), they only seem slightly flat by comparison with Pax, who is the true hero star of the show.

The real joy of ‘Hollow World’ is the many themes that weave through every page of it. Themes like gender, the purpose of religion, what God is, traditionalism versus modernism, immortality, individualism, the nature of insanity, the meaning of love and a thousand more. It may sound churlish to complain, because too much SFF writing these days is lightweight, but in some ways there are almost too many layers of meaning here, too many themes crammed in. Then there were points where a character would declaim at some length about a certain philosophy, which is perhaps an unsubtle approach. But the author never beats us over the head with his own take on it. He simply allows his characters to express their own point of view and leaves it up to the reader to make up his/her (aargh!) mind.

This is a clever and thought-provoking story, with loads of interesting ideas, some adrenalin-pumping action and plenty of humour. It took a little while to get going (the real world is always duller than an imaginary one), and some of Warren’s diatribes sagged a bit, but overall an entertaining read with Pax being one of my favourite characters of the year. A good four stars.

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