Eversion, Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz 978-0-57509-076-7, £20.00, 320pp, hc) May 2022. (Orbit US 978-0-31646-282-2, $17.99, 304pp, tp) August 2022. Cover by Lauren Panepinto.
The strange shuffling sound you will be hearing is a reviewer tiptoeing around a text filled with spoiler trapdoors. The book in question is Alastair Reynolds’ Eversion, a novel designed to promote puzzlement, and in fact to be a puzzle as much as a story, which means that a too-specific description could interfere with a significant part of the analytical and unravelling pleasures on offer. I can, however, safely say that Eversion is quite unlike most of Reynolds’s previous work–that is, it is not a Stapledonian future-history or space-operatic epic along the lines of the Revelation Space or Revenger sequences, though it might be a distant cousin to Century Rain. (Have I already said too much?)
Here is what is revealed on the back cover and in the first few chapters: in the early 19th century, the narrator, ship’s surgeon Silas Coade, awakens on a “fifth-rate sloop,” part of an expedition searching for a mysterious artifact along the icy, far-northern Norwegian coast. Decades later, he also finds himself aboard a zeppelin or a spacecraft on a version of the same mission in the Antarctic or among the moons of Jupiter. The vessel, whatever its nature and time period, is always called the Demeter, and a pattern develops: Coade comes out of a nightmare, takes a dose of a calming drug, deals with some aspects of the expedition until something goes disastrously wrong, whereupon he wakes up in a later time, on a different Demeter, to continue the strange voyage.
These episodes overlap, each one moving the story line a bit farther along before ending with an unhappy fatal event. Each segment contains echoes of fantastic tales–Poe, Verne, Burroughs, Lovecraft, or pulp space opera–and in a further metanarrative feature, Coade has been working on a fantastic tale of his own, which he reads to his companions as after-dinner entertainment.
The cast of shipmates remains stable across the stuttering story line: the unflappable, competent Captain Van Vught; the self-aggrandizing Russian expedition leader Topolsky; the steady, sympathetic soldier Coronel Ramos; the friendly, unsophisticated midshipman Mortlock; the mathematician-navigator Dupin; and the strangely knowledgeable, sharp-tongued Ada Cossile. And always looming over all, their goal, the Edifice, hard to describe or even see properly, thanks to its brain-twisting geometry. It might be “a series of projecting ramparts of varying heights and widths, laid out on curling paths, like the coiled arms of a thick, muscular octopus;” or “a little like a fat-bladed propeller, a little like a coiled python, a little like a piece of candy that had been twisted and re-twisted;” or “like a patterned carpet that had been rolled up and knotted, over and over again, until nearly all sense of its former nature lay concealed.” Exactly what it is and what it has done to earlier unfortunate explorers is a problem that each iteration of Coade’s nightmare adventure brings a little closer to solving, as each version of the expedition faces new crises.
So the novel is an extended puzzle, a kind of story-as-escape-room or playfair mystery, with clues hidden in plain sight (see the “challenge to the reader” page in old Ellery Queen mysteries), and part of the game is to notice when there are enough of them to frame a solution. (I have put my own Aha! page number in a sealed envelope and handed it over to the accounting firm that handles the Oscars.) After the reveal, when all the pieces have been realigned and accounted for, there is still a story to finish, an Edifice to deal with, and the fates of Coade and his fellow explorers to follow to their ends. I will risk Spoiling by affirming that the resolution keeps the whole thing within the bounds of modern science fiction, despite its flirtation with various fantastical ancestors and shirt-tail cousins, and that Coade’s nightmares and his humanity are satisfactorily accounted for, however strangely.
Russell Letson, Contributing Editor, is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud MN. He has been loitering around the SF world since childhood and been writing about it since his long-ago grad school days. In between, he published a good bit of business-technology and music journalism. He is still working on a book about Hawaiian slack key guitar.
This review and more like it in the October 2022 issue of Locus.
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