Thursday, November 17, 2016

Secretly Crossing Invisible Lines: Hutchinson's "Fractured Europe" Trilogy

Yes, I also keep thinking that's David
Boreanaz, Britney Spears, and...
shadowed guy.
"My grandfather writes of maps having a power over the land, and theorises that if an imaginary landscape is mapped in great enough detail, it will eventually supplant the actual physical landscape, as a wet cloth wipes chalk from a blackboard.

My great-grandfather, on the other hand, wrote of all possible landscapes underlying each other like the pages of a book, requiring only the production of a map of each landscape to make it real."
I've really wanted to share something about Dave Hutchinson's "Fractured Europe" series, so rather than just reviewing the latest (and final?) installment, Europe in Winter, I'm going to do a bit of a review of the trilogy entire.

It seemed to me that Europe in Autumn (2014) flew weirdly low under the radar: it's an ambitious and well-executed novel, a genre blender that seems like it could be a real hit, but it barely blipped on my review & nominations-based "to-read" radar.

But! I'm glad I got around to reading it, as well as the sequels.

Set in the very near future, the books envision a Europe that is fragmenting into smaller and smaller microstates. Initially following Rudi, a chef who sort of stumbles into a world of espionage, organized crime, and mysterious activity, the weirdness in these books ramps up exponentially as parallel and virtual realities make themselves known.

I found these books a delight to read, for two main reasons. Firstly, these are a stylistic genre-departure for me: these are very grounded, unglamorous spy novels, essentially. Individual sections are well-drawn, character-focused; but the larger plot is often completely obscure, with both the reader and the point of view characters unsure from where, or why, danger is coming.

Against this world, and this is the second joy of the book, Hutchinson slowly doles out evidence of these deeply, seriously weird developments. He walks this very interesting line of making them huge and real, yet also refusing to let the story turn completely to the science-fictional elements. The world and its problems continue, just with some very big additions.

You can tell how hard I'm fighting spoilers. There will be some after the jump.

Against the setting of a Europe breaking into smaller states (his no-longer-United Kingdom eerily anticipates Brexit, and to be honest these books are somewhat scary precisely to the extent one is familiar with current geopolitics), Hutchinson introduces Les Coureurs, a loose organization that move people and information across borders--not exactly organized crime, not exactly a freelance intelligence group, but somewhere in between. Additionally, there is a new and supposedly neutral player in Eurasian politics: The Line, a trans-continental railroad system that have declared themselves a sovereign country.

Europe in Autumn, which is on the balance the strongest novel, introduces us to Rudi, an Estonian cook who kind of gradually slips into the world of the Coureurs. Rudi and his world are excellently-drawn, with an emphasis and an appreciation for food being an element that persists throughout the trilogy--a surprisingly effective and human touch. Rudi's also an intriguing main character, starting out fairly directionless and evolving into a complex and competent actor.

Most of the science-fictionality early on is fairly gadget-y, a combination of cool tech and weird tricks that evokes a more cyber-punky James Bond. However, at a certain point in Autumn, the weirdness ramps up exponentially in ways that had me putting the book down and looking wildly around the room while I processed.

Rudi has been trying to figure out the identity of an unknown power in the shadowy game of politics he's involved in, and slowly pieces together the existence of The Community, which--wait for it--is an English nation from a parallel universe that was purposefully created a few centuries ago, and is now starting to intervene in Earthly affairs.

"There was a parallel universe and it had been
settled by the English" rather put me in mind
of "God exists and he's American".
From there, it gets weirder still--it turns out that The Community was created by a kind of topology-cum-cartography, experiences time at varying rates relative to Earth, and has been pursuing its own technology trees with a frightening focus and lack of ethics.

Europe at Midnight introduces us to a few new characters, including "Rupert", a citizen, émigré, and perhaps sole survivor of The Campus, a pocket universe that the Community maintained for research purposes. Rupert's early sections put me much in mind of some of Murakami or even Kafka's work, a surreal kind of pastoral-bureaucratic tone.

Nor does the weirdness stop, but I won't reveal everything.

A major critique of the series is that they're disappointly non-diverse. Very male, really, with almost all viewpoint characters being mostly-solitary men. The idea of the isolated, slightly paranoid intelligence agent, or bureaucrat, embedded in roles and situations they can only escape or affect at certain points--it works, setting up a tone and a theme, but at the expense of introducing us to relationships of any kind. And there doesn't seem to me to be any good narrative reason to include so few women, or to kill off such a percentage of those that do appear.

There are also, on reflection, some worldbuilding fails here, mostly having to do with the timescale--the events of the novel take place over about two decades if I'm reading it right, but with the exception of Big Weird Events (Europe balkanizing, The Community emerging), it's a remarkably static world. One doesn't get the feel that much is happening off-camera, and that street-level technology and politics remain so constant is hard to believe. This does feel like an oversight, and, while I generally avoid the game of imagining how a book could be rewritten, it seems like Hutchinson could have written basically the same series, without this problem, simply by starting it in the '80s or '90s instead of the near future.

Also, reader beware: the trilogy picks up a large cast of characters by the end, and it can be difficult to keep them all straight. Additionally, do not come to this expecting to piece together a coherent, complete picture of the overall plot. We're only given situational snippets from characters with very limited perspectives, and it's strongly implied that there are nations and forces at work that we never see directly. This can be rather frustrating, but it's also part and parcel of the tone of the book. Hutchinson explicitly refers to espionage and thriller greats like Carre, Leighton, and Fleming, and part of the pleasure of the book is this uncertainty and this feeling of being caught up in huge but obscure machinations. Rudi at one point "felt like a fly who had wandered into a grandfather clock and was gazing in awe at all the cogs without the slightest idea what they were for", a sentiment the reader may share at that point.

Europe in Winter, the third entry, wraps up many (though not all) of the major plotlines, and returns much of the focus to Rudi, now more of an independent power than even he realizes. It's a satisfying conclusion, especially in this era of sequelitis, although Hutchinson perhaps sacrifices some of the ambiguity and obfuscation that otherwise powers the series in order to give us an explanation and sense of closure. Hutchinson introduces Rudi to a major player and pseudo-villain in the last act, and spends some time drawing attention to and attempting to defuse the ludicrousness of the situation. Rudi calls him a deus ex machina, he laughs and says "Deus ex Michigan, maybe," and even refers himself to the trope he seems to embody:
"If this was a James Bond movie, you'd kill my two guys here with some lethal gadget disguised as a pen...and then you and I would have a climactic battle, at the end of which I'd die horribly, and you'd foil my evil plan. But this is real life, and all you've got left is PLEASE, and you still don't stop."
Quasi-villain, because the intentions and consequences here may actually be laudable, whatever one thinks of the means. Again bringing Watchmen to mind, the whole final act in Winter had me thinking of Ozymandias's revelations.

Although it has some flaws, I found "The Fractured Europe" an intensely enjoyable and strangely refreshing read: it's lively and energetic in a way that's very different from much of what I read, and has a kind of understated reality to its characters that I think owes to its crime, suspense, and espionage-fiction roots. Highly suggested if you wouldn't mind Stross's Laundry Files with 95% less snark, or if you liked Authority and Control's character from VanderMeer's "Southern Reach Trilogy". Also, in this way I can't quite define, I feel like Iain M. Banks fans will like this.

And it makes me want to go on an espionage-thriller binge. Will keep you posted.

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