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Friday, June 4, 2010

"Absorption" by John Meaney (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official John Meaney Website
Order Absorption HERE
Read FBC Review of Bone Song
Read FBC Review of Black Blood

INTRODUCTION: I have been a big fan of the author's Nulapeiron trilogy and I still think Paradox is one of the most interesting sf novels I've ever read as both style and content go. The two sequels Context and Resolution did not match the stunning series debut though they were generally very good and took the series to a definite conclusion, as well as having great secondary threads about the development of "true Pilots" in mu-space.

However the main thread of Nulapeiron and Tom Corcorigan over-promised with some new great stuff in the second novel and instead of delivering mind-blowing sf as the first novel did, got somewhat stuck in an "overpowering evil that makes everyone a slave at a touch" thingy that the hero - starting poor and downtrodden, but with a destiny and a magic artifact, well here it's sf-nal one, but you get the idea - somehow beats against the odds; have we not seen that in fantasy all the time, do we need to see it in sf too?

That was the main reason I did not like that much To Hold Infinity the earlier novel set in the same universe, but on Fulgor where the "overpowering evil" gets going, though that book had its moments too.

When the author announced a return to mu-space and the Pilots' universe with a new series called Ragnarok of which Absorption was to be the first installment, I had the highest expectations marking this novel as a possible top sf of 2010 and I pre-ordered it a month before publication, though some early reviews had already put a question mark in my mind. I will explain below why Absorption failed to meet my expectations though I am still interested enough in the sequel since the main failing of the book is that it's a setup novel where mostly nothing happens for a long time followed by a rushed ending.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: Absorption stands at about 400 pages divided into 52 numbered chapters each starting with its date and place of action, while there is a prologue at an indeterminate time into the future that sets up the series theme.

The threads that presumably will converge later are:

Fulgor 2603 AD (about 100 years after the events in To Hold Infinity and 800 years before the ones in Nulapeiron); on Fulgor the planet of the post-human Luculenti as well as numerous regular humans, the Blackstone family lives a lie as they are covert spies for the Pilot Council of Labyrinth. Carl the seemingly disgraced pilot posing as a mediator and his wife Miranda are sending their son Roger to the local version of college where he will meet a talented girl Alisha Spalding that is marked as a Luculenti-in-training; however Alisha will soon be entangled with the strange Luculenti Rashella Stargonier.

Earth 777 AD - Young Norse warrior Ulfr is forced to kill best friend Jarl, as Jarl was tortured to death for a homosexual act with a strange one eyed poet. Here seemingly magic stuff happens.

Earth 1926 AD - In Switzerland, young Jewish physicist Gavriela Wolf is thrilled to attend the Zurich Polytechnic Institute for her advanced studies, one of the first women students in science there.
In Russia, covert NKVD agent Dmitri Shtemenko is executing "grain speculators" in the name of the people, while always having a sense of darkness following him.
In a Bavarian forest retreat, a charismatic painter practices "crowd seduction" methods in the mirror; unsurprisingly his name turns out to be Adolf Hitler.

On an Unnamed Planet, 2146 AD - Rekka Chandri is preparing for a mission to observe in secret the local sentient civilization which is a low level one technologically speaking - as far as humans know.

Young local "Sharp" runs away from home after his Father is disgraced at a meeting with some notables where his scientific observations which the local sentients share by literally sharing their blood and small chunks of their bodies, are rejected.

On Labyrinth, 2603 AD Real Space Equivalent (as we know from the Nulapeiron series, Labyrinth the "infinite" home of the Pilots resides in mu-space so it's not subject to either regular time or space constraints), commodore Max Gould gets involved into strange and dark happenings while welcoming the Blackstones on a short secret trip home.

The beginning of a very ambitious space opera series, Absorption is very much a setup novel.

ANALYSIS: Absorption while engaging and readable to the end, turned out to be mostly promise than actual delivery for two reasons, one structural and one a matter of personal preference.

The structural fault of the novel is its ambition and multiple threads, about seven or eight in five locations as noted above, not to speak of the far future interludes that start with the Prologue and continue throughout the novel. 400 pages are just not enough to do justice to that much ambition, so each thread reads more like a short story than part of a novel and the author does not manage to achieve balance between all the necessary introductions and the storytelling requirements.

Some of the threads like the "unnamed planet" one could find themselves comfortably as magazines novellas, while others like the ones involving Roger, Alisha and later the Labyrinth doings are very intriguing but rushed.

If you are new to the Pilots universe, the mu-space, Zajinets, Pilots, Luculenti - so all the future threads if you want - will give you a lot to think about and enjoy but if you have read Nulapeiron and/or To Hold Infinity there is little new here as sense of wonder goes, and the drama is just not (yet, hopefully) there either. The Earth threads are also mostly promise to be fulfilled later as a collection of intriguing snippets for now.

The second fault of the novel for me - though that was more a matter of taste - was the style which while clear and readable and a definite departure from the more dense but accomplished one of Nulapeiron, was a step back in my opinion. In order to check out minor details about some of Absorption's events that I vaguely remembered being mentioned in Resolution, I re-read some from that novel and I was struck again by how interesting and appropriate was its style, as opposed to the plainer one of Absorption.

Overall Absorption (B from me) makes for a gentler introduction to John Meaney's sf than the brilliant but dense Paradox and I hope the series will step up in the next installment to get to the level of Nulapeiron as sense of wonder, action and coherence go. If you like it, do yourself a favor and try Paradox before the new Ragnarok novel is out.



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