Paul Di Filippo Reviews Eversion by Alastair Reynolds
Eversion, Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz 978-0575090767, hardcover, 320pp, £20.00) May 2022. (US edition Orbit 978-0316462822, 352pp,$17.99 August 2022.)
Alistair Reynolds is a grand writer with many arrows in his quiver. But I never suspected him of having any great fondness for the work of Philip K. Dick, nor of being prone to write an homage to that master of SF metaphysical surrealism. And yet that is just what he delivers, delightfully, in his latest outing. The two PKD novels most relevant are Ubik and Eye in the Sky. As in both those novels, Reynolds’s book features layers of reality and false reality, larded with epistemological and ontological and psychological conundrums, which get gradually stripped away until we reach “the truth,” such as it might be. Now, in a PKD novel, even “the truth” is conditional, problematical and subject to doubt. Reynolds, however, being more of a believer in naturalism, science, and objective reality, gives us an ultimate revelation that stands as the final solid word on the subject: an assertion of his ultimate Hard SF worldview over Dick’s quicksand paranoia.
Now, this narrative formula presents the reviewer with a problem. Up to the two-thirds point in the book, things are shifting and nebulous, and the reader is perpetually at sea (a pertinent metaphor, as we shall observe). This part can be discussed without spoilers. But once the Big Reveal happens, the book shifts tone and approach, from an existential mystery to a more typical SF-problem-solver. There are, admittedly, a few additional identity disclosures awaiting us in the last third, but basically it becomes a well-done albeit straightforward mission-impossible-race-against-time scenario. The coda returns, poignantly, to elements from the earlier portions.
So while I can lay out what Reynolds initially presents to us as the tantalizing enigmas that beset his characters, I cannot really venture into a précis of the last third of the book, without ruining things. Suffice it to say that the revelation embodies a shocking disjunction in time, place, and the nature of the cast, yet not without the groundwork having been subtly laid.
We open on a sailing ship heading to the Patagonian region. Our viewpoint character is the ship’s surgeon, Dr. Silas Coade. (Shades of Patrick O’Brian!). Reynold’s previous emulation of old-timey sailing ambiance and jargon in his Revenger series serves him well here. The tactility and ambiance of shipboard life is strongly manifest. The ship, the Demeter, is in search of treasure and knowledge. A previous expedition, the Europa, reported on a mysterious landlocked sea with an inconceivable structure on its shores: the Edifice. This is the goal.
The crew of the vessel is sketched with vivid concision. One member in particular, a woman named Ada Cossile, seems to know more about all this than she should.
The ship must traverse an ice fissure to reach the secret sea. But they fail catastrophically, within sight of their treasure, and Coade dies.
That is, he’s dead until he’s rebooted, with only hazy memories of the failure. Now, inexplicably, the Demeter features steam engines. But the mission and cast are the same. The scenario now repeats with variations. Then another reboot. Their craft is now a giant dirigible, looking for a hole into the Earth’s interior world. Finding the passage, they also discover the Edifice and make their first investigations. Almost needless to say, more tragedy and another reboot. This time, into a futuristic scenario of a slow manned mission to the outer planets of the solar system. We get a sense that this evolution is inching us closer to reality. The final false reality—where Coade awakes with a distinct Dorothy-returning-from-Oz vibe—offers Reynolds a chance for a brief interval of humor, as Coade finds himself in a situation highly congruent to all the cliches from Star Trek: The Original Series. From which, at last, we get kicked into the true reality, all veils removed.
The other major trope I haven’t yet highlighted is the exploration of a Big Dumb Object, the Edifice. This is a potent theme, made famous with the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and used by Reynolds previously in Diamond Dogs. It does not get as much of a workout here as one might hope, though, since the other issues are paramount. Still, the Edifice is a fairly satisfying token of Otherness.
One last theme: besides his doctoring duties, Coade is an amateur fiction writer. His attempts to navigate his intuitions and visions by formulating them into a story speaks both to his particular quandary and to the plight of writers in general. Glimpses of other realities transmit themselves through our pens and keyboards.
A worthy heir to the time paradox plays of Priestley, which in turn embody the spiral-recurrence-with-progress notions of Gurdjieff, this book is an entertaining and thought-provoking instance of one of SF’s major themes, conceptual breakthrough, one which does not scant the heartbreak and frustration involved in such pursuits.
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