One of the few good things about growing up in the 80s was the horror, be it in movies or a political reality that meant instant death after a four-minute warning. The emotion also underpinned spy fiction at the time in print and other media; Ian Bannen’s terrified expression when he is cornered at the beginning of the TV production of ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ is as terrifying as anything on Elm Street. Horror was a visceral response to the meeting in the human imagination of personal vulnerability and vast, impersonal forces – would we have been all that surprised if Raegan had turned out to be Cthulu?
Since the end of the Cold War, spy fiction has struggled a bit. In the derivative, infantile 90s James Bond went up against media moguls and the like, who were hardly the nightmare figures of Goldfinger or Blofeld. It could look like irony that the best contemporary source of that bleak, realist thrill is Dave Hutchinson’s ‘Europe’ science fiction series, although much spy fiction shares the same roots as SF, perhaps because both genres are rooted in a sense of alienation. Spies are usually where they are not meant to be, and much is made of culture clashes and loosening grips on reality, not to mention outright SF like the brainwashing machine in ‘The Ipcress File’ movie, which takes these tropes to their logical extreme.
Fittingly, I started the Europe series with ‘Europe at Midnight’, which at the time of writing is the middle book of a trilogy. I didn’t feel I’d lost anything by starting here, and have since been advised that it’s best to read the first book next, then the third because despite the rigorous narrative things get a bit timey wimey.
Another SF element is that the series examines a fracturing Europe and was written before the loathsome EU referendum and its cretinous result. As the fallout from that calamity continues, it’s a curious feeling to read a novel that examines an alternative reality consisting of an idealised England that for all its Miss Marple-in-Ealing tweeness is dull, tasteless and psychopathic.
Not since ‘The Man in the High Castle’ have I read a novel and wondered halfway through if in fact it was reading me. SF rightly celebrates its ability to inspire a sense of wonder; however, of equal value is a feeling of displacement from what we could call normal reality, but which could equally be a self-perpetuating bubble of deluded nationalism. Given the insidious fashioning of the national psyche by foreign-owned, tax-avoiding entities using push-button politics based on race to further purely commercial interests, such displacement has a political as well as imaginative urgency. Indeed, political science – always the poor relation to the gleaming cheerleaders of physics and astronomy – tends to enjoy a greater longevity than those improbable rockets filled with improbably singular racial crews. Everyone knows ‘1984’ even if they haven’t read it. Can we say the same about ‘Triplanetary?’.
The hero here is a chef called Rudi from one of the alternative English realms. Known as the Campus, the place is a suitably Orwellian nightmare of intractable vested interests and abysmal facilities management. For all that, the place has a genuine sense of community, unlike another of the alternative realms called the Community that is anything but.
There’s much in the novel to leaven its underlying, bracing bleakness. The two main things are humour, such as the line about the English not minding Europe providing they are in charge of it, and subtle, deft characterisation. The latter is best exemplified by the relationship with Rudi, who escapes into our realm, and Jim, his MI5 handler. It’s a relationship that survives missions over great lengths of time, with Jim’s concern for Rudi personal as well as professional, despite the awful situations Rudi is placed in while carrying out Jim’s instructions. That Jim is always working Rudi on one level or another despite his regard for him doesn’t make the outcome any less moving. Rather, the author’s grasp of genre is so subtle that it’s even woven into story’s emotions. Jim and Rudi are never completely sure of each other; their relationship a correlative for the political reality around them, as ‘our-world’ Europe breaks into ever-smaller corporate nation states. There are shades of ‘Neuromancer’ here, particularly in the super-wealthy walled European city/country that may be the data nexus for more than one reality. That Rudi can penetrate it due to an underestimate of sewage capacity is a brilliant and very English twist that leads to a predictably nauseating odyssey through a genuine underworld, accompanied by a psychopathic female torturer who I must guiltily admit is one of my favourite characters.
She at least is honest, unlike the Community. The Community is nice. Really, jolly nice. It’s full of those villages John Major was always going on about; stodgy food and no bloody foreigners. The lower classes know their place, which is to shut up and get on with whatever lumbering tedium it is their betters don’t want to sully their soft, pink hands with, like farming and fishing. Some fishermen kick off, upset about their version of zero-hour contracts and are duly never heard of again. Spiffing.
Then the Campus annoys the Community, and we come to a resolution that, like all the best horror, gets worse each time you read or think about it. The best that can be said about the sequence is the introduction of an SAS officer, who represents the best of Englishness with an insane degree of cheery practicality while doing his life-threatening, impossible job very well.
I would recommend this book any time, but especially now. It has such a fine grasp of national identity and the author is such a good SF thriller writer that the drubbing he gives the various factions never feels vicious or partisan. The story achieves all the tensions and excitement I mentioned at the beginning of this review and takes them in new and unexpected directions. For all the bleakness, it never loses heart; particularly in the character of Rudi, who despite being an immigrant from another dimension embodies the kind of battered, bloody-minded intelligence and creative resolve that England can do so well.