Monday 19 December 2011

Book Review | The Recollection by Gareth L. Powell

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When his brother disappears into a bizarre gateway on a London Underground escalator, failed artist Ed Rico and his brother's wife Alice have to put aside their feelings for each other to go and find him. Their quest through the 'arches' will send them hurtling through time, to new and terrifying alien worlds.

Four hundred years in the future, Katherine Abdulov must travel to a remote planet in order to regain the trust of her influential family. The only person standing in her way is her former lover, Victor Luciano, the ruthless employee of a rival trading firm.

Hard choices lie ahead as lives and centuries clash and, in the unforgiving depths of space, an ancient evil stirs... 


I've often bemoaned a certain lack in contemporary sf: a confusion, as I see it, of the precedence given to each of science fiction's component parts, namely the science, and the fiction. In the genre today, so far removed from the scientific romances with which it began—stories of love and adventure and discovery with just a whiff of tomorrow's world about them—the tech, nine times out of ten, takes top billing; the science overrides, or undermines, the fiction, obscuring character and narrative in favour of worldbuilding, speculation and so on.

The Recollection is the exception that proves the rule. Gareth L. Powell's second novel to see print—not including The Last Reef, his award-winning short story collection—The Recollection is fiction, first and foremost: good, old fashioned, character-driven fiction, with a neat narrative to boot... and yes, some fascinating science.

As it should be, then. As so rarely it is!

On his blog, Powell relates an encounter he had with an agent when this novel was still just a twinkle in his eye; an agent who advised Powell to give up The Recollection's ghost in order to "concentrate instead on writing something that would give him"—and this is the messed-up part—"a 'hard-on.'" This sort of perspective—not at all uncommon today, I'd add—is anecdotally symptomatic of the very problem I've been banging on about: of how the big ideas modern sf orbits have come to repel rather than attract the plight of the little guys that is at the heart of fiction as the masses understand it. The Recollection is in that sense part of the solution... though I doubt it will result in a great many erections.

Which isn't to say it's simple, or dull. In the first of the two timeframes The Recollection concerns itself with, Ed, a struggling artist, is riddled with guilt over the extra-maritals he's been having with his brother Verne's wife. Verne mightn't know the particulars of Alice's affair, but he has his suspicions, and confronts Ed about them in a cafe. The resulting squabble spills out into the street, then the subway... when out of nowhere, a great, glowing gate phases into existence, sucking poor Verne into the beckoning silence beyond.

This gate is only the first to appear of what soon seems a complex network, sprouting up the world over. "China's closed its borders," Ed explains. "Germany's gone for martial law. Everyone's scared. I even saw some troops on the streets of Hackney yesterday." (p.28) But though Ed and Alice are as terrified as anyone else, anywhere else, they're also plagued by an almighty sense of business unfinished, so when a new gate appears in Alice's back yard, practically, the guilt-ridden lovers pack a bag and venture through it... only to find they can never, ever go back. Only forward; in time, and in space.

Speaking of which, several centuries into the future, the gates are the least of anyone's worries. Humanity has long since inherited the galaxy: more people—many more people—now live off Earth than on, and our species has made friends at least one other. The Dho keep themselves to themselves, mostly, except to stress that, from the deepest, darkest reaches of the void, something is coming... something that will change everything. The Recollection is "darkness and hunger. It is a cancer gnawing at the bones of this galaxy," (p.145) which no-one and nothing can stand against.

Among those with pivotal parts to play in the conflict on the cards, Powell proffers Victor Luciano and Katherine Abdulov, star-cross'd former lovers from powerful rival families each with their own reputation to maintain. Embroiled in a bitter race with one another to the planet Djatt, where a valuable plant which only flowers every hundred years is about to bloom, Victor and Katherine are about to discover that they have unfinished business of their own to attend. That, and The Recollection, which seems to take a particular interest in Katherine.

I came to The Recollection primarily on the advice of Eric Brown, The Guardian's genre fiction reviewer and of course a prolific and much-admired author in his own right. And you know what? If I hadn't known any better—though I did and I do—I'd have believed The Recollection was his doing, too. It put me in mind of Engineman in one moment, and The Kings of Eternity—Brown's strongest novel to date—in the next. The best of both worlds, then.

But never mind me. These are—but of course they are—worlds entirely of Powell's devising. And The Recollection really is a terrific romp: fast-paced, laser-focused, and steadfastly accessible when so many of the genre's foremost proponents seem to have plotted a course in exactly the opposite direction. Bravo, Gareth L. Powell, for going against the grain!

That is not to say The Recollection is without a few minor missteps. In particular, the last act is something of an anti-climax, I'm afraid: resolution is arrived at all too conveniently, both in terms of the characters, who simply put aside their differences and pair off, and in terms of the world, which there seems much more to be said about. Come to that, the whole thing is somewhat on the slight side; more novella than novel.

But I can forgive a good book a great deal, and The Recollection is absolutely that, however modest it may be. More a space ballet than a proper opera, Powell's second is fun, energetic and emotionally very relevant... for it is a tale, above all else, of those things we leave behind. And we are always doing that, are we not? In the erstwhile, resolutely unperturbed as it is by the hard line the genre has for all intents and purposes drawn around itself, The Recollection stands as a sort of bastion of classic sf: gone... but not forgotten.


The Recollection
by Gareth L. Powell

UK and US Publication: September 2011, Solaris

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