Fiction Reviews


Stone Clock

(2018) Andrew Bannister, Bantam Press, £18.99, hrdbk, 325pp, ISBN 978-0-593-07652-1

 

This is a widescreen space opera worthy of Stephen Baxter or more accurately, as I have opined before, Ian M. Banks.

At some point in the far future mankind has come across a most unusual sector in space; whereas most stars are, literally, astronomical distances apart, the area which they name the Spin is only thirty light-days across yet contains twenty-one stars with about ninety planets.

It is also artificial, though they have absolutely no idea of who created it or how (or why), only that it is hundreds of millions of years old.  Naturally mankind has moved into the area and populated it and, whilst each planet is different (some modern, some medieval), groups and alliances have formed and, over the millennia, changed and changed again. It is a hundred millennia after Iron Gods. The Spin is at the end of its life and its diminished inhabitants are divided between those who live unknowingly in the relative paradise of one of hundreds of Virtual Realities - 'vrealities' - and those who scrape a living in what remains of the real world. But running the increasingly huge servers needed to maintain the vrealities is draining the last resources of the Spin, leading to conflict between those who tend the servers and those who believe they should simply be switched off, and so killing virtual millions.

There is one individual, Zeb, who divides his time between the real and the vrealities, finds himself caught up in this escalating and seemingly futile war. His job is to tend the servers housing the vrealities but he enjoys dropping in on them from time to time.  Yet when he suffers an industrial accident he finds himself ending up in one of the virtual realities and tormented by someone that seems to have power in that online dimension…

Meanwhile, in a remote star system, an ancient insectoid, called Skarbo the Horologist, observes The Spin. He has been doing so for several lifetimes trying to work out the Spin's purpose. But now he notes the accelerating signs of decline in what he unfashionably considers to be a giant complex clock. And Skarbo too is about to die for the very last time. He had resigned himself to never visiting the object of his studies, but nonetheless get sthe chance to make a last journey - travelling across a war-torn galaxy to what will be his final destination: the Spin. There he will learn of the artificial system's past - and its future…

This is the third 'Spin' novel and it follows Creation Machine (2016) and Iron Gods (2017).  The story, as with its predecessors, features much sense-of-wonder (sensawunda). As with the others in the series it is distinctly a standalone novel albeit the 'Spin' setting is something all three novels have in common and that they are sequentially, though distantly, separated in time.  This latest novel does hint at what the Spin is all about, but the answer(s) is(are) not definitive. As such there is the possibility that this may not be a trilogy but part of a larger oeuvre of Spin stories.&nbp; I hope so as I have been quite captivated by this series which is arguably one of the best, new, high-concept, widescreen space operas of the early21st century.

One thing. Though Stone Clock is still very Ian Banksian in its feel, it lacks – to my mind – the sparks of wry humour that sporadically flashed through the two previous works in this sequence and which neatly contrasted with the novels' darker elements.  That's not to say that there are no lighter moments, just that they re not so cucklesome.  However, the concepts are still there in spades.

I am definitely going to keep an eye out to see what Andrew Bannister does next.

Jonathan Cowie

 


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