Fiction Reviews


Engineman

(2010) Eric Brown, Solaris, £7.99, pbk, 510pp, ISBN 978-1-907-51942-0

Mankind has pushed out into the stars and established a number of colony worlds. All this was achieved through enginemen: people technologically altered so that they could use the power of the mind to warp space – think Dune. However science and technological advancement does not stop. Using enginemen to push ships through the nada-continuum to the stars becomes all but redundant with the space-time interfaces of the Keilor-Vincioff Organization: effectively 'stargates'.   All of which is unfortunate for the now redundant enginemen who not only have lost a livelihood but also lost the quasi-religious experience that enginemen get when linking to the nada-continuum.

Meanwhile some resent the political control of the Keilor-Vincioff Organization who, in order to stop competition, use their economic muscle to get politicians to outlaw the ond spacecraft of the various lines. Tensions are high and there are even terrorist attempts to blow up the interfaces. Then Ella on Earth gets a communication from her father on a distant coloney world from whom she has long since left behind and who used to be a big shot with the Keilor-Vincioff Organization. He says he has changed and she decides to go visit him.

And then there is Ralph Mirren, a former engineman, who suddenly gets an offer from a mysterious billionaire who is assembling a team of enginemen…

Once again Eric Brown has turned out an enjoyable adventure using many hard SF tropes. If you like undemanding space-opera action romps then Eric Brown is your man. Indeed if you are familiar with the author's works then you will not be disappointed as he is very much on his usual form. Indeed many of Brown's regularly-used SF tropes appear. There is: the space-warping transportation; the primitive but universally insightful alien race; the colony world on which events have effect everywhere else; and an Earth that has seen better days.

All this is well and good and, as said, Eric Brown's regulars will not be disappointed. New comers will find in Enginemen that a solid action adventure awaits them.   Having said that, as per usual, while Eric Brown uses SF tropes confidently he does not explore them with any hard SF depth that the giants of hard SF do by coating the tropes in a veneer of exotic science so as to lend plausibility, enhance sense-of-wonder and speak to a scientifically literate readership (who, if polls and surveys are to be believed, make up a good proportion (some suggest over half) of hard SF readers. Though I have to say that here he has twigged one of my previous such grumbles (see my review of Necropath) that unless you have a reason why (such as leaving a steep gravity gradient before warping, or there being some sort of harmful physical wake left behind), teleporting starships could simply warp direct from the launch pad. With respect to Enginemen there seemed to me that there was much potential in exploring the nada-continuum space drive and what was going on. For example, one possibility (of a number of the undoubtedly many ways this could have been played) was wrapping this all up with some variant of Leonard Susskind et al's holographic universe that was developed from Bernard de Wit et al's work, and the musings of Jacob Bekenstein. (If you are interested you can Google his 2003 article in the magazine Scientific American.)   Anyway, I am getting carried away. Suffice to say that there is much potential hard SF that Eric Brown could introduce that would add another quite substantive layer to his work so making it that much more – cutting edge hard SF – than adventures that happen to be SF simply because it employs SF tropes. Indeed if he ever gets around to doing this, he would find in the process none of his story would be lost, but his novels would gain SFnal depth for readers to plumb.

I am sorry I have banged on about this (because I have made similar criticism before) it just that Eric keeps turning out fine adventures that are hard SF, but I have yet to get from him fine hard SF! As a seasoned reader, I find this frustrating. But please do not take this as my being dismissive of this author: to the contrary it shows that there is much potential to his work, but which after over a dozen novels and novellas (that clearly illustrate that the man likes the genre) this has not yet been realised.

To summarise: another fine adventure from Eric Brown wrapped up in SFnal tropes but, frustratingly for the hard SF fan, little meat in terms of concept exploration and what that might mean for his characters (and indeed readers). He does though tell a good action yarn.

Oh, and as an added bonus, there are some Enginemen-related short stories from earlier in his writing career tacked on the end. Of these 'The Pineal-Zen Equation' was quite good, but I do thank the author (and Solaris) for including these as it is interesting to see how the Enginemen universe evolved through the author's earlier work, and indeed to have these all packaged up in a single book. Nice touch that.

Jonathan Cowie


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