Alastair Reynolds, ‘Eversion’ (Gollancz 2022)
I enjoyed this: cleverly done, extremely readable. It’s hard to summarise beyond the initial premise without giving the whole game away, and I recommend you read it, if you can, without any sense of where the story is going — you, seasoned reader of SF that you are, will have some sense of what’s happening, and some of what you suspect turns out to be the case, but it still carries you powerfully along. So: Silas Coade, the narrator, is ship’s surgeon on a fifth-rate sailing vessel, the Demeter, exploring the fjords of Norway. The opening chapters are written in a sort-of cod-1800 idiom, an as-it-were Master and Commander: The Fjord Side of the World. Coade is himself writing an improbable scientific romance in his spare time. His first action in the novel is to trephinate one of the crew who, concussed, has developed a subdural haematoma. We meet the book’s other characters: the captain, a mathematical genius, a rowdy Russian millionaire, a beautiful, mysterious woman — Lady Cossile — who has a low opinion of Coade’s writing, and whom Coade finds aggravating, although there is some kind of spark between them.
The Demeter is on a voyage of discovery, looking for something very particular, hidden away beyond the narrow cliff-walled inlet of a northerly fjord. A gigantic structure of mind-puzzling topography known as ‘the Edifice’, perhaps an antique castle, perhaps something much stranger. Topolsky, the Russian, hearing about it from another expedition, had chartered the Demeter with a view to locating and penetrating the Edifice, to uncover its mysteries and thereby grow rich. The novel starts slow-build, but Reynolds’ command of pacing is exemplary: his ratcheting-up of the narrative, the placement and effectiveness of the plot’s many twists, the drip-drip reveal of the various mysteries: it all generates a really splendid reading momentum.
There now follows a paragraphful more of more spoiler-y thoughts, including one or two reservations — though, to repeat myself, this is a highly enjoyable, readable SF novel, and I recommend it. So the Demeter, in attempting to navigate the narrow channel into the fjord in which the Edifice is to be found, crashes, gets wrecked, and Coade is killed. He is briefly a man in a space-suit in a dark tunnel who, checking his reflection in a mirror, sees only a skull peering out, like the cover of one of those old 1970s Pan Horror-SF paperbacks. Then he’s alive again, back on the Demeter, except that now it’s a paddle-steamer searching for the Edifice off the coast of South America. Killed here, he reincarnates on various more technically advanced version of the Demeter (a propellor ship, a dirigible, a spaceship) as the natures of and relationships between these ‘realities’ come into focus. I liked this, although the conceit’s resemblance to Dick’s A Maze of Death began, once I noticed it, to impinge upon the book’s ability to surprise me. It’s a balancing act, isn’t it: a book that teases you with a mystery naturally engages your own problem-solving capacities to try and work-out what the mystery is (to deduce who dunnit, what the Edifice is and so on) — but it is equally unsatisfying to be completely baffled until the author deigns to reveal the truth, or to see through the misdirection and puzzle-play so as to solve the mystery too soon. Overall Reynolds does pretty well keeping both these possibilities at bay, but still. I was, I suppose, a little disappointed that Eversion doesn’t turn out to be turtles all the way down, or at least turtles more of the way down than the book actually gives us. And I’m not sure Coade works, as a character in the larger sense. Reynolds characterises him pretty well to begin with, such that you can believe he would revert to more comforting and comprehensible story-worlds than the perilous, alien incomprehensibilities in which he actually is. But then — plot twist! — spoiler — it turns out Coade is basically this guy, and I could no longer see why traditional human storytelling, the fixtures and fittings of mundane familiarity, would be so appealing to him. Some of the names are clues, some are not, unless they are but I missed clues to what (why the captain is called ‘Van Vught’ for instance … is there a Voyage of the Space Beagle reference here?); and although the book is a little bit metafiction it could have been rather more metafiction for my taste: I never met a fiction I didn’t like etc etc. Still: very good.