Book Review: Geopunk, Starring an Estonian Cook (1)

Lahemaa National Park also has a cameo in "Europe in Autumn." Raster data from public databases
4/21/2014 11:20 AM
Category: Culture

With summer reading season here before we know it and Prima Vista literary festival coming next month in Tartu, ERR News is turning to bookworms both in and out of house for recommendations. In this installment, Andrei Tuch serendipitously discovers an Estonian thread in the new releases section of a Stockholm sc-ifi bookstore. 

Dave Hutchinson's "Europe in Autumn" is a dead-tree book I picked up from Stockholm's unmissable SF Bokhandeln. It's a novel whose genre someone before me has surely already thought to call geo(graphy)punk.

The plot (mild spoilers ahead) centers on a young Estonian expat, Rudi, who left his unsatisfactory home situation to look for a better fortune across greater Europe - a theme that certainly resonates. Hutchinson's Europe, however, is fractured both along historical lines and new ones. The old Union has collapsed for most intents and purposes, with new pocket nations springing up all over the continent, some as small as a few city blocks - and loads of borders.

How easy it is to get across a certain border is still to a big extent the function of what kind of passport you hold, and Estonia is seen as mostly harmless - not that it's good tradecraft for a trainee smuggler to use his real passport. The protagonist's adventures will even bring him home for a spell, and here Estonian readers will squeal with delight. For a fairly mainstream British writer to include a recurring joke based on Estonian phonetics buys him enough good will for us to ignore the fact that he gets the spelling of Tallinn's bus stations wrong. As a nation, we are also highly satisfied that Hutchinson includes a quip about Helsinki being boring and unremarkable.

When you think about it, the author paints a curiously rosy picture of a future Europe where a breakdown of integration mechanisms does not result in wars of reconsolidation - this is only ever addressed with a throwaway reference to UN peacekeepers, and in this near-future, America seems to be mostly absent from its former role as the elephant in European situation rooms. Still, life on the ground is sufficiently grim for most New Europeans that the book still qualifies for the n-punk umbrella. The geographical part of the moniker is also well-deserved: the veracity of included locations that are familiar to me from real life leads me to conclude that the rest of "Europe in Autumn's" vignetted landscapes are of equally high quality.

I can see how some people might not enjoy this book as much as I did. The author is mostly known and accomplished in writing short fiction, and he has admitted that the final form of "Europe in Autumn" is adapted from a different sort of book. The story is a sequence of self-contained tales arranged in only a medium-important arc, and halfway through the final act, it pivots from a perfectly workable spy novel re-set in a post-Schengen near-future, to high-concept SF. Hutchinson executes well, but as presented, it just doesn't seem necessary. This book could work equally well as straight literary fiction, and the story could have been told well enough as a kind of top-shelf Tom Clancy, without the technological concept that anchors the veer into full-blown sci-fi.

The grand reveal would be appropriate if this was the first part of a trilogy, and in that case the sequels would be unequivocal recommendations to fans of Charles Stross or the excellent Pratchett/Baxter Long Earth series, but I fear this is not to be in the case of "Europe in Autumn," and that it's the exactly the kind of book I have wanted someone to write for a while now - one that takes the short story tradition and expands it into a greater respect for the intelligence and imagination of the reader, letting them infer the rest of the tale from the cues that have been set up. While I appreciate this approach in principle, it makes for a too-abrupt cutoff to the actual story as written. Rudi's adventures are not over, the great injustice has not been righted, and there is so much more to do with this universe. The book is wonderfully enjoyable, but it fails to deliver on all the promises that the author has made.

Hutchinson himself has said that he has ideas for a direct sequel, but no immediate plans, which is a great shame - this book just begs to be the start of a grand arc, the Eurocentric counterpoint to what some of Stross's characters have been doing across the pond at more or less the same time. I can only hope that Hutchinson's editors knock some sense (of urgency) into him.

And no, apparently he's never actually been to Estonia. I'll tell the Prima Vista committee to get on that.


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