Engineman is a thoroughly enjoyable sf novel which I read with great pleasure, only to be afflicted by a buzzing cloud of 'Yes, but....' queries some little while after the end. More of these in a moment.
Overall it's a heady reworking of often familiar sf images, deployed with lashings of colour and style. We have the Enginemen, who personally drove starships by engaging with the 'flux' and mentally pushing their craft through the 'nada-continuum' at faster-than-light velocities (plenty of antecedents here, from Robert Sheckley's 'Pusher' to Norman Spinrad's The Void Captain's Tale). Now they and their grafted-in interface boxes (Cordwainer Smith, 'Scanners Live In Vain') are redundant thanks to advanced matter-transmitter portals (Robert Heinlein, Tunnel in the Sky, etc, etc) through which one simply steps from world to world. As the plot develops, it emerges that the new-fangled portals are in fact incalculably dangerous (I don't suppose anyone remembers my own The Space Eater), but on a metaphysical plane that threatens the afterlife (Bob Shaw, The Palace of Eternity), requiring that they be closed down en masse (Dan Simmons, The Fall of Hyperion) despite huge commercial pressure from mega-corporations that prescribe genocide for the troublesome yet deeply spiritual aliens whose metaphysical understanding is far beyond ours (sf passim).
I forgot to mention that an occasional occupational disease of Enginemen is a time-delayed sensorium: see Eric Brown, 'The Time-Lapsed Man' (itself nodding in homage to Brian Aldiss, 'Man in his Time'), a strong short story whose background though not plot has been incorporated into Engineman.
The game of spotting possible influences is always good fun, but should be played without malice: Brown has sufficient stylistic authority to take what he wants from the great glittering scrapyard of sf notions, and remould it nearer to his own heart's desire. Again and again the book rings true emotionally, and its future setting has a good feel, simultaneously exotic, sleazy and lived-in. It's the nuts-and-bolts work of plot logic that keeps provoking my worried 'Yes, but....'
A selection of quibbles, then.
- Why are the gigantic frames of the Keilor-Vincicoff Interfaces (to give the star-portals their proper name) built out in the open air? Pro: spectacular descriptions of their cobalt-blue glow by night, and opportunity for spectacular suicides as people incinerate themselves by jumping into the dormant interface field – but neither of these factors might weigh heavily with non-novelists. Con: alien seeds and spores drift through, causing respiratory complaints and turning Paris, the setting for much of the terrestrial action, into a jungle of unearthly vegetation. In reality, surely, that mere possibility would mean every Interface being locked away in a vast, unspectacular hangar stuffed with quarantine and decontamination facilities.
- Could Europe possibly get so run-down that even the tourist industry is largely abandoned, with Notre Dame Cathedral itself neglected and ignored? Unlikely – but hell, it has to be forgotten so it can be used as a wonderfully stylish hidey-hole in which to construct this forbidden flux-riding spaceship.
- But exactly why have the authorities gone to such trouble to disable all the old Engineman-driven ships (effectively grounded by economics, since they can't rival the speed and cheapness of the Interfaces) and even to criminalize the use of these ships' 'flux-tanks' (which provide that transcendent contact with the 'nada-continuum' that Enginemen crave even when not using it to push a spaceship)? Well, it certainly adds tension to the plot.
- Why do Enginemen's personal flux-tank interface boxes take the form of a 'bulky spar ... like a miniaturized yoke' across the shoulders? It's an anatomically unlikely region to attach what seems to be a rigid chunk of equipment, especially one also referred to as an 'occipital console': does it rise all the way up the neck to the back of the head? Passing over the notion that attachment to a non-flexing structure like the rib-cage might be safer (but that's a bit too 'Scanners Live In Vain'), the mentions of nanotechnology do beg the whole question of size. Nor is it clear why, when the thing can be safely removed and its only use is to link the Engineman to a now illicit flux-tank as above, the bastard authorities haven't simply made this chunky personal add-on illegal.
- Come the happy ending, can we really believe in the notion of all the bigwigs who control the Interfaces successively submitting – one rogue organization excepted – to an alien communion which convinces them to shut down their source of income? This is passed over with a traditional sf 'everyone soon saw reason', heedless of the likely backlash of suspicion (in a universe containing such jolly medical processes as MemErase) that those whose minds are so dramatically changed must have been brainwashed.
It is slightly dismaying to find sections of such a pleasant and readable book unravelling in this way when examined in tranquillity. One feels that the editor at Pan might usefully have raised some of these points, and that the very talented Eric Brown could readily have rethought or written around any awkwardness.
Engineman still grips, with lots of page-turning excitement involving pursuit and assassination on Earth ('Dawn lacerated the horizon'); torture, terrorism and genocide out on an alien world whose Interface is destroyed; moments of transcendence and insight as the 'flux-continuum' emerges as the opposite of the nada or nothing of its nickname; a satisfying close. Enjoy it, and try not to pick at the loose threads.