Friday 5 November 2010

Book Review: Engineman by Eric Brown

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"Once they pushed bigships through the cobalt glory of the Nada-Continuum. But faster than light isn’t fast enough anymore. The interfaces of the Keilor-Vincicoff Organisation bring planets light years distant a simple step away. Then a man with half a face offers ex-engineman Ralph Mirren the chance to escape his ruined life and push a ship to an undisclosed destination. The Nada-Continuum holds the key to Ralph’s future. What he cannot anticipate is its universal importance – nor the mystery awaiting him on the distant colony world."


Like a lifelong alcoholic in a dry state, former engineman Ralph Mirren lives a life of desires deflected, an existence lamentably lacking the very thing he lusts after above all: the nada-continuum. But the bigships which used to power through the stars like "magnificent leviathans" are fit these days only for vast scrap graveyards; the faster than light craft he and an elite breed of interstellar trucker-types would "push" from galaxy to galaxy are simply not fast enough any longer. The Keilor-Vincicoff Organisation have implemented portals which have made instantaneous travel across unthinkable distances a reality. Ralph wants - no, needs - something he can never again have.

Or can he?

When a mysterious scar of a man approaches Ralph and what remains of his bigship crew of old with a mysterious proposition, the enginemen - for a moment - dare to dream. However, Hirst Hunter wants an oath of allegiance before he'll explicate upon his plans, and it's far likelier he's simply looking to sell Ralph time in a surviving nada-continuum tank than engineer, against all the odds, one last push.

Of course, Ralph can hardly resist. An addict to the bitter end, he joneses after the day on which "he would be able to renew his courtship with the infinite. Until then his conscious life would comprise a series of unfulfilled events; a succession of set-pieces featuring an actor whose thoughts were forever elsewhere. Occasionally he would be allowed intimation of rapture in his dreams, only to have them snatched away upon awakening."

Engineman is an elegy of addiction, at its core, a lyrical and indelibly persuasive fable of one man's hunger for something greater, something more. And it is that rare - not to mention precious - thing in science fiction: a cracking good story over and above an account of awesome future tech. As genre stalwart Eric Brown himself writes in his occasional review column for The Guardian, "One problem facing SF authors is how to balance the effective presentation of a future universe with the smaller-scale depiction of its dramatis personae: the former sometimes overwhelms the latter." In Engineman, he strikes just the right the balance.

A deeply flawed and not immediately likeable sort, a bottomless wallow of self-pity who's isolated himself from a supremely understanding wife and a daughter he's never even met, Ralph is nevertheless a character you can get behind. He's a good man with a haunted soul; a good man who's made some dodgy and decidedly selfish decisions, yes, but a good, determined man brought low by a bad habit. His drug of choice has given him a tantalising glimpse of forever, and having gazed upon the infinite, he has become obsessed by the inherent imperfection - not to speak of its insufficiency, its inconstancy - of the here and the now.

In their ways, many of the other individuals you'll come across in Engineman are similarly misbegotten. Hirst Hunter searches for redemption from the dark deeds he was once a part of; Ella Fernandez let someone down a long time ago, and she's still trying to make it up. These dramatis personae are lively, engaging and shoulder the narrative burden handily when they're required to. They - and Ralph - are as much to do with Engineman, and indeed its soaring success, as any technical writer's account of gadgets we all saw in Star Trek decades ago repurposed. There's a bit of that, no doubt, but this is science fiction after all; wouldn't be what it is without the science any less than the fiction, now would it?

Engineman is a stirring and surprisingly optimistic meditation on addiction and the purgatory of loss, and I'd heartily recommend it if it were that alone. It's not. In fact, it's not even Eric Brown's latest novel: Engineman is 16 years old if it's a day. Why, then, am I going on about it so? After all, reviewers only review new books, don't they? Well, perhaps more truth to that than I'd care to admit, but moving along, in actual fact this isn't an old book by any stretch: Solaris have proffered up a glorious new edition, replete with corrections, gorgeous new Dominic Harman cover art, a wealth of added and edited material... oh, and did I mention it comes complete with eight related short stories?


They're not all knock-outs - point me in the direction of the last collection that didn't have a dud or two! - but by and large, the Engineman shorts both enrich the titular narrative and expand upon an assortment of its least developed themes and ideas. Nor as these mere curiosities: one, "The Time-Lapsed Man," took home an Interzone award, and there are others - namely "The Girl Who Died and Lived For Art" and "The Phoenix Experiment" - which stand as its equal.

Engineman is a treasure trove of stories, big and little alike, of science and - crucially - of fiction. On the basis of this loving reissue alone, Eric Brown well deserves a place alongside the genre's brightest stars.


by Eric Brown

UK Publication: September 2010, Solaris
US Publication: September 2010, Solaris

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