(2013) Frank Shatzing, Jo Fletcher Books, £25.00, hrdbk, 1,152pp, ISBN 978-1-849-16515-0
This book certainly wins the size prize: quite the largest, most dense novel-cum-doorstop I can remember. 1,152 tightly packed pages sound hefty but not too hefty. After all, Peter Hamilton regularly churns out 1,000 word plus volumes, and they are generally only part of his story. But Limit is genuinely bigger than that. The pages are large and the typeface is small, for one thing. I would not like to guess at a word count but I would put money on it being way north of the largest Hamilton. The other big thing about this book is the format. Do not take it on a flight or you'll risk excess baggage charges. Wary of shoulder spasms and muscle pulls I weighed it: a little under five pounds. At which point I promptly bought the Kindle edition.
This is a translation from the German original, so the original may be different, but I found the 1,152 pages a difficult read, and that was partly due to the way this was written, the choice of language, some of the imagery and some of the sentence structures. That’s down to the translator of course, but unless you speak German that’s the only version you have and I have to say that at times the prose is trite and predictable.
There were other reasons why this book was not exactly a page-turner. It takes forever to get round to anything, for instance, and is completely bogged down by Shatzing showing off his research. Every bit of new-tech has a thesis attached to it. Every new place any of the characters visit is endlessly described in history-lesson depth.
And it is impossible to keep track of all the characters. The main opening story arc is a trip up a space elevator then on to the Moon with a bunch of oligarchs and super rich businessmen, inheritees and film stars, all being tapped into investing in new technologies to get at the Helium-3 on the Moon which will solve Earth's energy crisis. Lots of characters are introduced in a very short space of time, then the point of view interchanges between them (majoring on a few) almost indiscriminately. Lots of page-flipping needed to work out who is who. Other who have large casts deal with the character-confusion issue in a different way, having full single point of view chapters and siphoning off characters into smaller groups so that they can be seen in more depth, but here the effect is a confusing mass of jumbled similarities – the results are unsatisfying and shallow.
There is a parallel plot, set in Shanghai, where a search for the mysterious cyber-hacker Yoyo exposes a conspiracy which spills over into the space exploration plot. There is a secret organisation involved, Hydra (surely Marvel Comics have a copyright on that name) and it all (eventually) leads to some pretty conventional thriller fare.
There are some good parts. The science seems well realised and the world building is good. The Shanghai scenes race along at a better pace and Shatzing sets up its mysteries well. And – if you like that sort of thing – there’s a cameo from David Bowie, who ends up in a Space Station playing Space Oddity and explaining (rather unconvincingly, I thought) why he’d rather stay on planet Earth than go to the stars.
Shatzing has been billed as Germany's premier thriller writer but on this showing it is hard to see why. This book is a slog, with none of the tautness and tension that good thrillers have. In trying so hard to explain his new world, he ends up making it tedious and boring, and in giving us so many characters, he ends up giving us none we care about, save for the enigmatic Yoyo who wisely stays out of sight in this sorry, overbloated mess for as long as she can.
It's plotted well though – my issues are with the execution (mainly length and exposition) and characterisation. I appreciate that some people will not have the issues I have with the forensically detailed descriptions of the technology and just about everything else. But from my perspective, heavily edited, and perhaps with a different translator, this could have been a good book. As it is, I'd only recommend it as a doorstop. If you want to read it, and see what Bowie has to say about whether planet Earth really is blue, I would recommend getting it on a Kindle. Or buy it in hardback, join a gym and work up those arm muscles.
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