- Genre: science fiction
- Pages: 303
- My rating: 8.5/10
Much like its predecessor, Europe at Midnight is a fragmented novel. Dave Hutchinson’s remarkable science fiction series is about the fragmentation and fragile unity of the continent Europe. Our own version of Europe lies somewhere in the middle of two extremes. It is fragmented by geography, history and cultures, but a countervailing force nevertheless leads to reasonably stable countries, cultural mingling and to institutions like the European Union and, dare I say it, shows like the Eurovision song contest, so that the current political shape of Europe looks like it is hanging in a precarious equilibrium.
Hutchinson’s first novel, Europe in Autumn (2014), explored deep fragmentation; a continent of hundreds of nations. The protagonist of that novel, Rudi, jumped the sprawling borders as a member of a secret spy society. Like a John le Carre novel, Rudi dealt with Estonians, Hungarians, Poles and many others in Central European cities, eventually ending up on the trail of a secret. This secret hinted at a deeper reality and a hidden countervailing united force. Europe at Midnight takes off from there. Chronologically, it plays out during the events of the preceding novel, but thematically it tackles the second idea of a united force. And just like the fragmentation was more visible in Europe in Autumn, so is the united force a more concrete reality in Midnight.
The core storyline follows Rupert ‘Rupe’ of Hentzau, who slowly discovers that he finds himself in a situation straight from The Matrix. It’s a bit hard to follow, for Hutchinson throws us into the deep end, but we slowly get the point that his world is not the one we know. Instead, he lives in a fascinating version of a college campus that doubles as an independent country, were students and professors form social classes, and his society finds itself in a post-East Germany situation after the fall of the wall. A second storyline follows a secret agent in London named Jim. Both stories are thrilling, full of crime and mystery. After every wall is another wall, many of them invisible.
The story is… disorienting to say the least. I’m not sure I am smart enough to follow every turn and the story does move very fast. Hutchinson throws you into unknown situations time and again with unknown characters, and each time he works his way back to a part of the puzzle that we knew already. It takes a bit of faith to stick with it and the barrage of names and fake-names gets confusing, but it also clicks together again.
What’s interesting is that the hidden mystery that is also a tissue underneath Europe, is presented as a very British thing. A very conservative British thing that does not accept outside cultures. Hutchinson toys with Britishness, the way Susanna Clarke did in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell but in a more contemporary way. Britain has always kept itself apart from the rest of Europe, thinking itself a separate continent, exemplified by their recent departure from the EU. Hutchinson seems to disagree with this sentiment strongly. What exactly is he saying here? That Britain has a strongly conservative streak, and that it is actually deeply enmeshed within Europe, and that this may lie largely hidden and unrecognized? Perhaps. Various ideas about Britishness, old and new, are tried out and their relationship with the rest of Europe differs each time. The Fractured Europe books are short reads, but flirt with many such interpretations.
Hutchinson’s prose is once again a joy to read. I love this guy’s writing. He is sharp and witty without being edgy; intelligent, wry and comedic. Not only that, but he visits all the cities in Europe that have been my own travel destinations in the past ten years and I love to read about that. The characters don’t come across as deep or rounded, since he is too busy cutting and pasting together a complicated plot, but the way it all comes together is quite a journey. This SF series is one of the more sophisticated and layered of the last decades.