(2018) Steven Erikson, Gollancz, £18.99, hrdbk, ii + 407pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22380-6
It began in broad daylight, in a crowded city, with the disappearance of an SF author, Samantha (Sam) August. The thing was that she seemed to disappear in a beam of light from a UFO.
In Africa, a death squad leader finds an invisible wall slowly, gently force him back away from the jungle.
In Canada, the Prime Minister, is getting reports of similar force fields that are pushing people away from tar sands.
In Russia, the President is discussing reports of the Moon and Mars being deserted of its occupants.
Meanwhile, in Earth orbit, Sam is coming to grips with her being abducted by a super-Artificial Intelligence (AI). It has come to the Solar System on behalf of a triumvirate of civilizations to see whether humanity can be saved from self-destruction? The AI (Adam) needs a human spokesperson…
Can humanity prove itself worthy?
Steven Erikson is, of course, well known as a fantasy writer and especially his 'Malazan' series of books. He has a substantive reader-base. He is now moving into SF with this first contact story. A tale that unveils itself from many points of view. Fortunately, though the cast of characters is large, the principal score or so are listed in the front of the book. This helps greatly as we can quickly see who are the minor characters whom, though providing colour, we can safely ignore.
The story takes time to get going, but this does not matter as there is much of moment going on to hold our attention and we need to assess the scale of events. We also need to learn the backstory. It appears our World leaders know more of aliens that they have been letting on and there have been malicious ones interacting with humans throughout Earth's history…
This is a cracking story from an established storyteller. Bags of sense-of-wonder. A progressive quasi-environmental philosophy. Plus we get quite a few cultural as well as SFnal references. Included here, for example, is the revelation that Iain Banks has billions of readers out there in the galaxy. Hugo-winning, fellow (to Erikson) Canadian author Robert Sawyer also has a cameo written in his own words. What's not to like?
Well, for your day-to-day SF reader there is much to like and it is very possible that this book will garner its publisher many sales. However, this is the SF² Concatenation and a word of caution is needed for scientists-into-SF readers. Erikson is not a scientist which in itself is not a problem: what is, is that he has not properly researched much of the science he references. He misrepresents James Lovelock's theory on biosphere homeostasis: the Earth is not a single organism but the biosphere's biotic and abiotic components interact homeostatically a bit like the homeostasis of an organism. The novel states – supporting pan spermia notions (psuedo-pan-spermia excepted, I thought that, other than Hoyle adherents and similar, this really had little traction from any serious academic/scientist of note the past three decades) – that bacteria and algae are ubiquitous in the universe and found in comets! He cannot even be bothered to look up the meanings of terms: he misuses the term 'biome' (repeatedly) when it is clear he means 'biosphere'. And there's a notion early on that, by cloning a historical figure from cells, we could interrogate the clone to learn about events in the historic figure's life. We even get, in all but name, perpetual motion machines. For the scientifically literate, this novel bowls along and then all too often suddenly grates against the incidental science, which makes it difficult for the scientifically literate reader to suspend disbelief and buy into the story's core premise.
I also have another problem with this novel, and that is its 'progressive' or rather 'pseudo-progressive', quasi-environmental agenda. Yes, it would be simply peachy if each of us could be very nice and tolerant to absolutely everyone else all of the time. It would be fantastic if national borders did not matter and that everyone had food and warmth. Truly, it would! However, alas the real world is not at all like that. We have to learn to deal with it as it is, and not as if some magician or god or alien, artificial super-intelligence, waved the allegorical equivalent of a magic wand. We must not, and cannot even if we wished, abscond ourselves from our ethical and moral responsibilities. And as for the environment, yes we are over-exploiting and poisoning our world. And again, yes, it would be fantastic if magically (or by some super-intelligent, caring dictator) we all individually and collectively as a species behaved environmentally responsibly. Personally speaking, as a qualified environmental scientist with a career in the biosciences, I am all too aware as to our precarious position as a global culture in undermining the biosphere's ability to provide environmental services and sustainable resources. (I do genuinely fear for the next generation and their own children.) Make no mistake, these are problems of our doing and we – not anyone else (and certainly not aliens) – are going to have to sort this mess out ourselves. And here it is up to artists and writers to play their part. So, to my mind, a story line that effectively says, don't worry about what you/we are doing to the planet as someone else will come along and sort it out, is at theleast undesirable. In fact at the most, there is a case to be made that writers and artists that promulgate such storylines are being wholly irresponsible; they are sending out a message that others may clear up our mess and this is propaganda for the uncaring profligate.
Now, perhaps some will think that I am being unduly harsh. I am not: the subjects at the core of this novel – humans are harming each other and the planet – are real and serious. Perhaps Steven Erikson is innocently unaware of what he is doing and has not thought about the subtexts his writing sends? (That he apparently does not check his science tends to lend support to that notion.) I'm prepared to give the man the benefit of the doubt, but I hope that he does start to think about his responsibilities as a professional fiction writer.
At the end of the day, what we have with Rejoice is something of a fantasy dressed up in the trappings of science fiction. Not surprising really given that Erikson is an established fantasy writer. In this light what we get, in fantasy-speak, is a commercial kingdom that despoils its own lands and which is periodically raided by demonic creatures from afar. Then a god-like entity comes along that sends the scavengers running and who compels each and everyone of the kingdom's subjects to behave. For this beneficence, the god-like entity does not demand homage but service in the form hunting down the demons from afar…
And this is where we end up, with the promise of humanity going to the stars to protect other civilizations from the predatory aliens. Yes, we can expect more. There seems little doubt that a sequel will come. (Let's hope this does not glorify unquestioning and willing participants in proxy wars.)
As said – science and subtexts aside – this is a cracking story with many wry nods to popular SF culture –be they Shatner and Star Trek or Clarke's 'The Nine Billion Names of God' – that will tickle the SF reader. The author is bound to take some of his many established fantasy readers with him, as well as garner new ones, with this foray into (not science fiction but) escapist sci-fi.
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