Europe in Winter, by Dave Hutchinson (Solaris 978-1781084632, £7.99, 320pp, trade paperback) November 2016
I first encountered the work of Dave Hutchinson in 2015, when, as one of the judges for the Campbell Memorial Award, I voted to put his Europe in Autumn (2014) on the final ballot. Then, as circumstances so often conspire to ordain, I was unable to approach the sequel that I had much anticipated, Europe at Midnight (2015). But now that the third volume in the sequence is out, and number two became a finalist for both the Campbell Memorial and Clarke Awards, I finally get to revel in the whole saga.
The engine at the center of Hutchinson’s near-future landscape is a prophetically simple notion that permits elaborate outgrowths of plot and speculative riffs. Basically, Hutchinson proclaims that the past will reassert itself—an observation utterly relevant in the light of certain political events of our own 2016. Here is how the book phrases it, close to the start of the story.
In the latter years of the twentieth century, Europe had echoed with the sound of doors opening as the borderless continent of the Schengen Agreement had, with some national caveats, come into being.
It hadn’t lasted. The early years of the twenty-first century brought a symphony of slamming doom. Economic collapse, paranoia about asylum seekers — and, of course, GWOT, the ongoing Global War On Terror — had brought back passport and immigration checks of varying stringency, depending on whose frontiers you were crossing. Then the Xian Flu had brought back quarantine checks and national borders as a means of controlling the spread of the disease; it had killed, depending on whose figures you believed, somewhere between twenty and forty million people in Europe alone. It had also effectively killed Schengen and kicked the already somewhat rickety floor out from under the EU.
The Union had struggled into the twenty-first century and managed to survive in some style for a few more years of bitching and infighting and cronyism. Then it had spontaneously begun to throw off progressively smaller and crazier nation-states, like a sunburned holidaymaker shedding curls of skin.
Nobody really understood why this had happened.
What was unexpected was that the Union had continued to flake away, bit by bit, even after the Xian Flu. Officially, it still existed, but it existed in scattered bits and pieces, like Burger King franchises, mainly in England and Poland and Spain and Belgium, and it spent most of its time making loud noises in the United Nations. The big thing in Europe these days was countries, and there were more and more of them every year.
The Continent was alive with Romanov heirs and Habsburg heirs and Grimaldi heirs and Saxe-Coburg Gotha heirs and heirs of families nobody had ever heard of who had been dispossessed sometime back in the fifteenth century, all of them seeking to set up their own pocket nations. They found they had to compete with thousands of microethnic groups who suddenly wanted European homelands as well, and religious groups, and Communists, and Fascists, and U2 fans. There had even been, very briefly, a city-state — or more accurately a village-state — run by devotees of the works of Gunther Grass.
In this scenario, a somewhat illicit organization named Les Coureurs des Bois exists to ferry information and valuables and persons across the myriad borders, with the approval of authorities or not. Stumbling into this setup, our hero is the innocuous, humble, and modest young fellow named Rudi who wishes to be naught but an expert chef, yet is somehow enlisted into the shadowy world of the Coureurs.
The first book follows Rudi from incompetent and naïve apprentice to grizzled, savvy, somewhat jaded veteran. His thrilling adventures that take him up and down the Continent and to England—narrated in the omnisciently droll, knowing manner of Bruce Sterling or Charles Stross—seem somewhat episodic and unrelated at first, albeit immensely entertaining. Hutchinson’s gift for creating scads of memorable, believable yet quirky characters serves him very well. The reader is quite content to follow Rudi’s cack-handed exploits even without any seeming cohesion. But then at the end Hutchinson ties it all up brilliantly, as the major secret prize behind everything is revealed.
This was what Fabio had stolen from the Line’s consulate in Poznati. Three proofs of the existence of a parallel universe. And a map showing how to get into it.
The Community was a topological freak, a nation existing in the same place as Europe but only accessible through certain points on the map. Its capital, Wladyslaw, occupied more or less the same space as Prague, but the way Baedecker described it, it sounded more like a mixture of Krakow, Warsaw, Paris and Geneva. Fifteen million people, back when Baedeker wrote his guidebook. How many people were there in the Community by now? What were they all doing? Was that a secret worth protecting? Worth killing for? Rudi thought it probably was.
Now we have stepped into weird ontological Christopher Priest or China Miéville territory, and we enter fully in the next volume.
Europe at Midnight opens with the first-person account by a fellow named Rupert, whom, we soon deduce, is an inhabitant of the Community—or rather a small pocket of it called the Campus (shades of John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy!). Rupe has no notion of the existence of Europe or the interface between Community and the larger “real” world. But soon his conception of the cosmos will shatter when he winds up in our world, very much a stranger in a strange land.
Meanwhile, in alternate sections, we ride the shoulders of Jim, a member of the UK’s Security Services, who is dealing with strange eruptions of unreality. He learns from Adele Bevan, an expert on the Community—insofar as anyone really is—that the parallel universe has been spying on Europe for centuries, and that their machinations are soon going to ramp up.
The rest of the book chronicles the intersecting activities of Jim and Rupe and a host of other players, some quite nasty, who are seeking the upper hand in the new landscape that is going to result from a fusion of the two universes—but on whose terms? And of course, Rudi eventually returns to enact his part.
This book employs a wider lens than the first, making it somewhat more diffuse and hence a tad less intimately compelling than Rudi’s solo autobiography. Parallel love stories involving Rupe and a woman named Araminta and Jim and Adele Bevan do add a lot of vital focus. But ultimately this volume serves admirably to jolt up the concept and the consequences, and performs as the essential catalyst and bridge to the third volume.
Europe in Winter commences with a shocking act of terrorism committed against the TranEurope Rail Company Line, which is itself a very narrow sovereign state stretching from Portugal to Siberia. As a guaranteed hook of an opener, this incident is presented by Hutchinson with the same sense of enigma paradoxically abetted by crystal-clear visual and sensory detail that he imbues many other incidents with. This strategy, put to good use also in the previous books, requires the reader to play along, suspending any desire for immediate understanding of how all the parts fit together, trusting that the ultimate puzzle payoff will be satisfying. Hutchinson always delivers, but it does demand a certain kind of faith.
Along with all the new characters continually arriving—such as the charmingly amateurish Gwen, who is part of a Community-centric conspiracy group—we get some anchoring familiarity. Rupert, Rudi and other initiated folks in their circle from the first two books are back, in a highly changed and charged environment. Existence of the parallel world Community has been public for a number of years now, and intercourse between the two worlds is accelerating. Why, even Starbucks is building franchises in the other world. But someone has also stolen a portion of the Community, topologically transposing the slice of terra firm elsewhere, and Professor Mundt, discoverer of some new topological algorithms, has been assassinated. And in the polity of Dresden-Neustadt, someone else is using scads of computing power to run a Matrix-style simulation of the whole planet. Rudi & Company get eagerly on the scent in a thrilling and recondite hunt for the secrets behind the original creation of the Community by the eccentric English family named Whitton-Whyte, and the probable futures of that anomaly. Their quest involves lots of tradecraft and no small amount of danger. Even innocently attending his father’s funeral, Rudi is nearly killed.
Novice readers could, I think, enjoy this book solo, since Hutchinson offers some scant but sufficient backstory. But total enjoyment will be obtained only by those familiar with the first two installments. A big part of that pleasure is seeing how much Rudi has changed from his innocent days. His expertise is seasoned with a certain world-weariness, which actually begins to dissipate under the new challenges. “Rudi turned and perched on the windowsill and looked around the flat. It was two years since anyone had tried to kill him. Something was wrong.”
With small flavors of Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere) and Matthew de Abaitua (IF THEN) and even Alastair Reynolds (Hutchinson posits the Mirny EcoState, a kind of “steel beach” arcology that Reynolds might have envisioned on Mars), Hutchinson delivers an absolutely au courant tiptop thriller with a satisfying ending that even circles back to the start of Autumn.
In an interview from late last year, Hutchinson promises to round out this marvelous series with a fourth book, Europe at Dawn. My bet is that when the fourth book appears, he will still be ten entertaining steps ahead of our current turbulent sociopolitical reality.