(2016) Andrew Bannister, Bantam Press, £14.99, hrdbk, 331pp, ISBN 978-0-593-07648-4
Andrew Bannister's debut novel is a spectacular plunge into the deep end of wide-screen space opera.
Back story. In a galaxy with many civilizations, interstellar distances were always a hassle. So when a cluster of stars is found where the distances between them are light days (not light years) they soon attract inhabitants: this cluster – called 'The Spin' – is only 30 light days across. The Spin sports over a score of stars that nurture getting on for a hundred worlds. That this star cluster has been artificially created (and apparently now automatically and mysteriously maintained) by ancient builders long gone hundreds of millions of years ago, is a source of mystery as are the 'construction' methods they employed: it is the biggest artificial construct in the Galaxy. But life goes on. While all of the cluster's worlds have space travel, it is to varying degrees: there are advanced worlds and those less so. The civilisations the cluster now houses are also varied with some being democratic, some industrial, some mercantile, and some positively feudal in nature.
Fleare Haas is in enforced solitude in a monastery. She had been part of a failed rebellion against a large, advanced industrial hegemony. She is also the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and part of the ruling elite of this said Hegemony… Fortunately for her one of her rebel comrades has not forgotten her.
Elsewhere in The Spin, on a conquered and now ruined world ruled by a vicious dictatorship a discovery is made of an artefact that could provide an insight into the god-like Spin constructors or at least some technological innovation.
Viceroy Alameche is tasked by his ruthless dictator to investigate the discovery and to provide political options to take advantage of the unwelcome interest growing by the more developed worlds of The Spin…
This is a debut novel and Bantam's advance publicity likens Andrew Bannister to Peter Hamilton, Iain Banks and Alastair Reynolds. So let's cut through the hype. It is true that this book is likely to appeal to the readers of these authors (and you could just as easily add to that list the likes of Stephen Baxter and Paul McAuley when in space opera mode). However to my mind – and trust me I do not say this at all lightly – there is a distinct echo of Iain Banks' 'Culture' novels in Bannister's writing. Indeed some scenes, especially those of the diplomatic artificial intelligence sent by the more developed nations to the despotic leader, would fit almost seamlessly into a Banksian Culture story. Having said that, this is no copying of a Culture set-up (no almost benign ultra-advanced civilization letting the children run riot and only imposing order when the overall galactic status quo) is threatened. Yet, if you miss Iain, be warned, you may well get a sense of déjà vous reading Creation Machine even though Andrew Bannister's novel is very much its own tale.
I do have to say that I found some of the cruelty and sadism that pepper Creation Machine a little gratuitous (again think of a few instances in Iain's own writing). It is not that there is some cruelty and sadism but that almost everyone seems to be at it and before long – no matter at what point you are in the story – there will be another instance of this shortly. To my mind this drip-drip undermines the impact of these scenes when they do happen. Now, this could be because Creation Machine is a debut novel and the author has not quite come to grips with pacing elements. Conversely, especially as Andrew Bannister can clearly write, there is something else going on? Now, I genuinely do not know which of this options is at play. I can say that there is something fundamentally wrong with The Spin's set-up that is not explained (or even directly alluded to). This too could be a writer error, or it could be because there really is something else going on. Here, we stand a chance to find out. Apparently Creation Machine is the first in a series of three standalone novel (presumably all set in The Spin). Certainly with the set-up provided in this novel there is plenty in Bannister's worlds to mine and indeed much could be going on in the rest of the galaxy (or, indeed, elsewhere?). No doubt we will find out in due course, but even if this set-up is a conceptual flaw I will not mind as Bannister's writing is so entertaining that I could forgive a lot let alone (apparently) minor irregularities.
Either way Andrew Bannister seems to be contributing to the flowering of late-20th and early-21st century widescreen space opera at which Britain seems to excel. Here I also share some empirical evidence via an in joke amongst some of us on the SF² Concatenation team. For some years now we have noticed that nearly all late-20th and early-21st century British widescreen space opera novels contain one or more of three words: 'regolith', 'actinic' and 'caldera'. Don't ask me why but when you are next reading the space opera works of the novelists mentioned at the start of this review you will see what I mean. Creation Machine has two of these, one of which is the geological term 'caldera'. All well and good, but what is relevant to those into exploring the boundary between science fiction and science fact, is that Andrew Bannister by qualification is a geologist and profession a geoscientist in the industrial sector. Most scientists who also write SF seem to come from the core STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine/maths) disciplines as well as astronomy and computer science. I can't immediately recall any current SF author with a geoscience background and so it will be interesting to see in this context what new Andrew Bannister will bring to the table. And I for one will find out. Creation Machine is such an engaging novel with a good plot, plenty of sense-of-wonder, style and brio propelling matters, that I will certainly be looking out for the follow-up novels. Who knows, with Creation Machine we could be witnessing the birth of a new star in the SFnal firmament. Sun glasses please, we are in The Spin.
See also Peter's take on Creation Machine.
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