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Jun 11

Book Review: Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson

What’s It About

Imagine a near future where the European Union has been dissolved and the continent has splintered into hundred of tiny nations and polities and republics.  A Europe where three apartment buildings, ruled over by a gang, can call for nationhood.  A Europe where sovereignty and independence and geography is always in a state of flux.

Rudi was once a cook.  He’s now a courier working for Les Coureurs des Bois.  Given the environment, moving stuff around is a job that comes with a wide variety of pitfalls and dangers and requires someone who can be flexible, adaptable and very quick on their feet.  You know, like a spy.

And just when you think you know what sort of book this is, it turns out to be something completely different…

Representative Paragraph

Rudi considers a change in his career – chef to courier:

“I thought you ought to know that Max’s cousin is very grateful to you,” said the little mafioso.

“Max mentioned it,” said Rudi.

Dariusz sat back and lit a cigarette and looked around the restaurant. “How would you like,” he said, “to do that kind of thing for a living?”

“I’m a chef,” Rudi replied. “For a living.”

Dariusz inhaled on his cigarette, held the smoke in his lungs for longer than Rudi would have thought was medically advisable or physically possible, then exhaled a tenuous aromatic haze.

“How would you like to do that kind of thing as a hobby?” he asked.

“All right,” said Rudi. “So long as it’s a well-paid sort of hobby.”

Should I Read It?

Fuck yes!

Is this the best science fiction novel that was published in 2014?  Maybe.  (Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor is pretty awesome as well).  But it’s up there as the best written.  The tone is sardonic, the dialogue is slick and the plot is beautifully paced.  And best of all, Europe in Autumn is genuinely surprising.  Less twist and more a reveal – I won’t spoil it here, but you might want to avoid the commentary – that’s totally unexpected and yet on reflection makes perfect sense when you consider that this is a novel about shifting boundaries.

Read this book.

Commentary

When it comes to genre fiction, it’s the little things I appreciate.  A novel not overburdened by exposition, a novel where the dialogue sounds vaguely human, a novel where there’s a sense of pacing and momentum to the story.  You know, the basic components of a half decent piece of literature.

Dave Hutchinson gets the little things right.  More than that, Europe in Autumn is a veritable masterclass in plot, dialogue, pacing and world-building.  And as such it’s up there with novels like Annihilation and The Race as the best written science fiction novel for 2014.

First off, there’s the world building.  Hutchinson does not start the novel with a block of text explaining how his book is set in a near future Europe where economic failures and the odd plague has seen the continent fracture into hundreds of sovereign states and principalities.  No, he begins his novel in a restaurant where the head chef, Rudi, encounters a bunch of mean looking Hungarians.  It’s a tense little moment which doesn’t end in the overblown action scene you expect it to, but instead has the mean looking Hungarians praising Rudi on his food.  “Clever fuck Pole,” says one of the Hungarians.

It’s odd to read a science fiction novel where the author holds back the urge to vomit out a stream of world building and plot set-up.  Rudi’s life is about to change dramatically but it has little to do with him being a chef or the opinions of Hungarians.  And yet that scene does create a sense of tension, a sense that this time and place is not entirely safe.

There is exposition, but Hutchinson delivers it to the reader in dribs and drabs, such as —

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.

— and —

[Darius] picked up his glass and took a sip of vodka. “I saw on the news last week that so far this year twelve new nations and sovereign states have come into being in Europe alone.”

— and —

The [European] 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.

And this approach to exposition remains consistent throughout the novel.  For the most part it’s employed as flavour text, data-points that add depth to the near future Europe he’s envisaged.  Even when Hutchinson decides to take the opportunity to provide more background to his characters, such as the section where we hilariously learn why Rudi became a chef, these episodes stem naturally from the story.

The dialogue also plays a significant role in carrying the plot and developing the world.  I acknowledge what constitutes good banter is a very subjective thing. In my review of Jim Butcher’s novel, Skin Game, I found Harry’s dialogue to be smug and filled with unnecessary pop culture references.  I might have blamed Joss Whedon. And yet the internet is crammed with people who eat up that sort of self-aware witty banter with a knife, a fork and their best china.

Hutchinson’s dialogue and his prose in general has a sardonic and deliberately noir-ish quality.  There’s a self awareness to what’s said, but one that’s more about the character’s internal psychology than any attempt on the part of the author to show off his post moderns chops.  Hutchinson mostly leaves the dialogue alone.  He doesn’t punctuate it with descriptions about how the character is feeling or his motivation in the scene.  For example this exchange between Rudi and Fabio – the guy who is meant to be mentoring Rudi in the art of couriering packages across borders – is not only funny, but provides insight into their relationship:

“I hate chefs,” said Fabio, stuffing himself with [food].

[Rudi:] “I know.”

“Twitchy little prima-donnas.” Fabio tapped the table with the handle of his knife. “Any half-intelligent person can follow the directions in a cookbook and produce food at least as good as this.”

“But could they do it night after night for a restaurant with seventy tables?”

Fabio sipped his wine. “It’s all in the planning, right? Any fool can do it […] This wine is really good. What is it?”

Rudi consulted the menu. “House red.”

“Really? You should talk to the staff, you know, one catering worker to another. Maybe you can score us a couple of bottles to take back with us. It’s better than that piss you serve me.”

And then there’s the plot.  I haven’t really described Europe in Autumn because it’s the mechanics that impressed me.  But I don’t want that leaving you with the idea that this is a professionally written book with zero substance.  While the novel might start inauspiciously in a restaurant, Hutchinson slowly and intentionally ups the ante.  Rudi goes from his work as a chef to becoming a courier for a shady organisation and you think the novel is going to be about that organisation and the sort of low-level espionage Rudi does for them.  Throughout all this, issues of geography and cartography bubble under the surface.  No surprises there, in a Europe that’s flaking “like a sunburned holidaymaker” the idea of making a map – even a digital one – would be viewed as a nightmare.

Late into the novel we’re told the story of Captain Charles John Whitton-Whyte, his survey of the British Isles in the 18th Century and his obsession with Stanhurst, a small village that never existed.  This slice of history, conveyed to us via an article exploring Whitton-Whyte’s cartographical obsession, has an almost fairytale quality.  Suddenly, a  novel about a chef who becomes a courier and find himself on the run from a shadowy organisation out to kill him takes on a distinctly Borges feel.  And what’s brilliant about this, is that this glimpse into another reality – a place that doesn’t exist in our world, but does exist somewhere else – works seamlessly into the novel given that this is a book that’s all about shifting boundaries.

I could say more about how smart this novel is.  I could mention how the second half of the book is essentially a bunch of linked short stories where Rudi features but is not the point of view character.  And how this sudden shift in focus widens our understanding of Hutchinson’s Europe and the shifting boundaries and realities simmering underneath, without upsetting the narrative flow of the novel.  I could also note the political implications inherent in a book where borders are frequently changing and independence is a fragile thing.  Instead, I’ll leave you with the clear statement that Autumn In Europe is a remarkable science fiction novel from a writer who deserves all the critical praise he’s been receiving.

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