2010s, 2014, Arthur C. Clarke Award nominee, British, BSFA Award nominee, Dave Hutchinson, espionage, near-future, Rebellion/Solaris, science fiction, spy fiction, The Fractured Europe Sequence, thriller
Europe in Autumn is only Dave Hutchinson’s second novel, though he’s been writing for decades. While he was first published back in the late ’70s/early ’80s—in his twenties, no less—Hutchinson then spent many years as a journalist and nonfiction writer. He returned to writing genre works with his first novel, The Villages back in 2001. It took 13 years before he published another one, Europe in Autumn… but we’re in luck, as its sequel Europe at Midnight releases tomorrow. (Review forthcoming.) Europe in Autumn generated quite a buzz from and earned BSFA and Clarke nominations; thanks to From Couch to Moon’s excellent BSFA coverage, the book caught my attention.
Hutchinson presents a near-future Europe continuing to fracture and fragment into hundreds of miniature nation-states or polities, each with its own defined border. A border that may be heavily guarded, as few polities are well-regarded by the state they abandoned—there aren’t just checkpoints and border guards to deal with, emails may be hacked, and a polity could be cut off from its utilities (such as internet access). Some polities are as small as two tenements inhabited by football hooligans, while others are as big as an entire train line running across continental Europe. With so many borders springing up overnight, the world needs a way to get packages through, a grey market courier system. Enter The Les Coureurs des Bois, a shadowy organization that will deliver packages—and in the right situation, people—across the borders. They offer freedom of movement in a balkanized world—Schengen 2.0.
Rudi is an Estonian chef working in Poland; he’s always wanted to be a chef, and he won’t let politics get in his way any more than an oppressive head chef. But he finds himself drawn to become a coureur when his boss asks him to help free a relative living in the Independent Silesian State of Hindenberg. From there, he continues learning the tradecraft of a coureur, pulled into ever more complex situations. Few of them leave him with feelings of success, and some close calls almost drive him out of the business. Perhaps he should have, as he finds his life at risk and the coureurs on his heels. Unsure who to trust, Rudi must apply every trick he’s learned to find out who wants him dead and why. And maybe then, he’ll be able to do something about it.
This world feels current and oddly prescient: 2014 showed the narrow margin between a kingdom united and Scottish independence, saw Greece in such financial disarray that it could have left the EU, and followed breakaway Ukrainian republics on the fringe of a warming Cold War. The question isn’t if it can happen, because it narrowly did. Hutchinson’s portrait of a fragmented continent is impressive, a wealth of European history and culture and geography blended into hundreds of microscopic political entities. (The word “verisimilitude” comes to mind. Repeatedly.) The novel is as much a le Carré-style spy thriller as it is near-future SF—perhaps more—with a heaping dose of Kafka, an oppressive mix of borders and paranoia. With a new country (and new plot twists) every 50 pages, it runs across Europe’s micro-states shrouded in subterfuge.
Hutchinson’s writing is crisp and refreshing; he writes very readable—almost unputdownable—prose. The deft writing is backed by equally deft plotting, and the most serious complaint about the book—its abrupt ending, lacking clear finality, something even Hutchinson has acknowledged—well, it’s less of a flaw now that the sequel is at hand. (The second major complaint may be about the cover.) Hutchinson displays quiet but powerful sensibilities in his work: a deep humaneness, a potent but unobtrusive wit, a remarkable grip on his world-building. And it’s also never overwritten, always perfect: the sly, sardonic wit never felt forced or overused; the near-future tech remained on-hand but comfortably in the background.
As the novel develops, you start to see just how smart it is. It does start off a bit slow, but it builds in intensity and complexity. About midway through the book you realize it’s laid out like a series of shorter pieces combining to form a larger work—more than vignettes, not quite individual short-stories, changing point-of-view and pacing and plot at some of the transitions. Rudi struggles, frustrated by the lack of easy answers; hopefully you’re drawn on by your own curiosity, though some readers will share his pain. By the end of the book, the stakes have been raised to science fictional heights, while Rudi has grown, become more active and in-control rather than letting events push him in one direction or another.
As a fan of noir thrillers and spy novels, I may be a bit biased here. But. All told, this is a sharp book—sharp writing, sharp plot, riding the razor’s-edge of current events. The characters, plot, and world-building seem to do everything right, creating a unique setting and drawing the reader into it. The novel’s well-written to boot, with a lot of depth to its characters, and a complex plot to untangle. The reader who expects that “science fiction” is all rocket ships and little green men may be confused at first, thinking it an exceptionally literate noir/espionage novel. It is. It’s also one of the more remarkable SF books in recent memory, a novel that’s fresh and invigorating. Hutchinson deserves the praise he’s received for it; I hope he eventually picks up an award to go with the acclaim.
Title: Europe in Autumn
Author: Dave Hutchinson
Release Date: 2014
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $3.99 (MSRP, cheap!)
ISBN/ASIN: 1781081956 / B00I3KDBD2