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'The Recollection'

By Philip Reeve

I loved Science Fiction when I was a teenager, and sometimes since I've gone looking for books that would recapture that Sense o' Wonder from the stories I read then.  Having been away from the genre (at least in its written form) for the best part of thirty years, however, it's difficult to know where to start.  I sometimes get the feeling that I fancy reading a good, old-fashioned, planet-hopping Space Opera, but when I look in the bookshops I'm confronted with books that are a) twice the length of Anna Karenina, b) episodes in on-going series, c) based on aspects of physics so arcane that I can't begin to understand them or d) all of the above.  I tend to start such books with enthusiasm, then lose interest around a third of the way in and skip to the end (still, they're better than all the fat fantasy novels people have recommended to me recently; I don't even skip to the end of those, just abandon them half-read in hotel rooms).

Anyway, you can imagine my cries of delight when I came home from BristolCon with a copy of The Recollection by Gareth L Powell and discovered that it's exactly the sort of book which got me reading SF in the first place. It has more planets, spaceships and mind-stretching Sci-Fi concepts than you could shake a stick at, it's a stand-alone story, and it's only 300 pages long.

Unusually for a tale of galaxy-spanning space brouhaha, it begins in Bethnal Green, where down-on-his-luck artist and gambler Ed Rico is being threatened with violence by some of the people he owes money to.  Within a few pages, however, strangeness intrudes into the story, in the form of mysterious arches which begin to appear all over the world.  They are portals to who-knows-where, and Ed's brother Verne vanishes through one of them, conveniently situated on the down escalator at Holborn tube station.

Following him through a series of such arches, Ed and his sister-in-law find themselves travelling across a series of alien worlds, eventually arriving in a future where humanity has spread across space using technology back-engineered from the arches themselves.  His story interweaves with that of space pilot Kat Abdulov, whose rusty starship, the Ameline, has much in common with the Millennium Falcon, the Serenity and that one in M John Harrison's The Centauri Device whose name I forget.

In fact, M John Harrison is the author I was most often reminded of while reading The Recollection.  The way the story moves between modern London and far future space echoes Harrison's Light, Gareth L Powell's spaceports, like Harrison's, are dingy and litter-strewn, and like Mr Harrison, he has a way with names: Strauli Quay, the Bubble Belt, Vertebrae Beach...  (There's also a chapter called Ragged-Ass Drive Signature, surely a prog-rock album waiting to happen.)  But M John Harrison novels, while reliably brilliant, are intellectually dense and fill the reader with a draining sense of ennui (I was out of sorts for weeks after I finished Nova Swing).  The Recollection is more upbeat, and although a terrible threat to the universe eventually arrives to link the two halves of the story, the book's overall feeling is one of optimism and well-crafted fun.

On the whole I preferred the first half of the book to the second, but I don't really mean that as a criticism: I almost always prefer beginnings to endings.  The final chapters reveal the characters' destinies and explain some of the book's mysteries, but I do hate destinies, and mysteries are much more fun than explanations.  In the end, though, I was left wanting more, which is probably the best thing you can say about a story, and a nice change from all those fat novels I mentioned earlier, which left me wanting less.   The Recollection leaves room for sequels, and if there is one I shall read it, but Mr Powell has already announced his next novel with Solaris, and it doesn't appear to be connected to this one.  That's good, I think, and the sign of an author with ideas to spare.  On the cover of  The Recollection Paul Cornell predicts that 'Gareth Powell is going to be a major voice in SF'.  I suspect he's right.

The Recollection is published by Solaris Books, and is available from all the usual places, including  Or download it from the Rebellion store.


Anonymous said...

One of my favourite good, "old-fashioned" space operas would have to be "The Golden Globe" by John Varley - published in 1998, although Varley was in fact kicking about and writing books in the 70's. It has one of the most memorable, charming first-person POV heroes that I've ever read in any fiction.

It really is a shame that so many science fiction authors are capable of creating awesome adventure stories but can't quite manage human relationships, dialogue and general English aptitude. The authors who can - like you and Varley - really are rare gems. I find a dull "literary" book to be as much a waste of my time as a sci-fi or fantasy book that's real schlock. All of my favourite books - such as the Mortal Engines series, especially "A Darkling Plain" - exist at that sweet intersection of swashbuckling adventure and beautifully realised characters and situations.

philip reeve said...

Sorry, I missed this comment when it was posted. And thank you. You're quite about dull 'literary' novels: just as bad as sci-fi, and without the benefit of huge spaceships etc. I do mean to read more SF, but a few things I've tried lately I just couldn't get into. It's to do with tone, I think. The Recollection was a very easy read, though. I'll look out some John Varley- I know the name, but don't think I've read any.

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