Eric Brown

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.

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.