Friday, August 04, 2017

Hutchinson, Europe in Winter (2016)

Dave Hutchinson, Europe in Winter. Solaris, 2016. Pp. 295. ISBN 978-1-78108-463-2. £7.99.

Reviewed by Andy Sawyer

There’s a scene early on in Europe in Winter in which we meet Gwen, a civil servant who is part of a group of conspiracy-theorists whose focus is the Community, the parallel-universe/constructed world to which Hutchinson’s previous two novels Europe in Autumn and Europe in Winter have introduced us. Suddenly, with the revelation of the existence of the Community to Gwen’s baseline world, her superiors are intensely interested in it. “The government was being forced to make up policy towards the vast new European neighbour on the hoof.”

And it’s difficult not to crack a smile at how far Hutchinson seems to be not so much speculating but simply reflecting the chaos and ineptitude of a government which, at the time I read and write about this novel is… well, making up policy on the hoof towards how it wants to disengage from its European neighbour. Dave Hutchinson is one of comparatively few contemporary science fiction writers who seems to be interested in writing about what is actually happening in the world, rather than in spinning fantasies which depend upon earlier examples of science fiction. But, while his future-Europe, cracking and dissolving along myriads of fault-lines under the influence of nationalism and global capital, is a clever thought-experiment, the “Fractured Europe” series is much more than that. It’s one of the most skilfully-told tales in years, shifting from viewpoint to viewpoint in a manner which counterpoints both protagonists and setting, sending up Englishness (one aspect of the Community is basically what Europe should be from an English viewpoint, i.e. just a larger Middle-England with a decided absence of “foreigners”) and using the atmosphere of the Cold War spy thriller to leap off into even chillier explorations of reality. If there are comparisons to be made, think John Le Carre crossed with Philip K. Dick.

Winter begins with two people travelling on the Line, a trans-European railway which is also a nation-state, being bumped up to better accommodation to compensate for bureaucratic hassles, enjoying the food, reading, arguing about a film… and then triggering a bomb in a tunnel beneath the Ural Mountains. Some pages later, Rudi, whom we had met briefly in Europe at Midnight and in much greater detail in the first novel of the series, meets someone who claims to be an older version of himself, or rather a sophisticated information-gathering computer program. The novel proceeds by means of similar episodic situations and scenarios, sometimes involving characters we have met before, at other times introducing new players, through which we pick out the threads of a plot that gradually become woven into the stories of the Whitton-Whytes, their topological/cartographical experiments with stepping across the borders of geographical realities, and the data-haven mini-state of Dresden-Neustadt with the capacity to run simulations indistinguishable from reality. If, as Rudi is told when he starts getting nearer to what is going on with the “Coureurs des Bois,” the shadowy organisation which transports items and individuals across the multiple borders of this new Europe, “[e]veryone is part of everyone else’s operation,” then it’s tempting to read the “Fractured Europe” trilogy as a modern version of G. K. Chesterton’s absurdist theological spy thriller The Man Who Was Thursday. And certainly the espionage jokes come thick and fast, with Rudi and his adversary trading quips about the works of Ian Fleming and Len Deighton. But the espionage games are simply a cover for much more complicated explorations of what is going on. And while we are told outright just what is going on and who is behind all of this, we are told in such a way as to make it clear that we should not accept it as any explanation at all.

At some point, the kind of analysis of the alternate-reality/pocket-universe/simulation networks in this series that seems appropriate to a review is going to topple over into a reductive précis of the story, but it is safe to say that by the end of Europe in Winter Rudi’s “It was hard to be certain who was running the world any more” is nearer to some sort of resolution rather than to nihilistic despair, and but that there is more to come. It is also certain—though again this is something of a reductive reading which doesn’t take much in the way of perception to arrive at—that the novel and the series as a whole shows us the nature of identity in the world we see when we look out of our windows, when even the most monochrome street-scene will be hiding vast spectra of diversities and differences. Some might find (and much as I admire Hutchinson’s work I think I am one of them) that there is more to global politics than “Europe” and although one character, detained by Hungarian authorities asks to speak to the “Texan Ambassador” and another suggests that the “Chinese” are behind a particular incident while yet another travels on an Australian passport, we rarely see much of the world outside Europe. However, careful reading would suggest that this is not an oversight, and that something is going on elsewhere.

There is certainly more to come. There are probably people writing ‘realistic’ political thrillers or mainstream novels set against the background of “Europe,” but it is hard to imagine any sense of what it is like to be part of the currently-unfolding drama produced any more vividly and accurately as in these novels by Dave Hutchinson. It can seem like simply drawing upon a stale metaphor to say that many of us (particularly those of us who originate from the UK) are living in different worlds from each other, worlds that change from day to day, full of borders that we are constantly negotiating. Hutchinson’s dislocating sequencing and characterisation, and his wry and dark humour, remind us that we need exercises in the fantastic to make sense of our mundane realities. In a novel so much based upon “winging it” (Rudi reflects at one point that the problem with people working in Intelligence is that “they took it too fucking seriously”), and messages delivered “mostly via body language and innuendo,” we know that, as with all good improvisation, Hutchinson is doing a great deal more than making it up as he goes along. If the art of winging it Is making it look easy, Hutchinson is a jazz master. When we stand in Heathrow and are told the genesis of the Whitton-Whyte project, we are told just enough to make us know that there is more story to be told.

And meanwhile, in the real world, the tensions in Europe offer more material…

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