Eternal Light by Paul J McAuley (Orion Millennium, £6.99, 463 pages, paperback; first published 1991, this edition 30 September 1999.)
In many ways Eternal Light deserves to be called "a spectacular interstellar romp". Fortunately it's also a great deal more than this and to label it as simply "a romp" would be to do it a terrible injustice. It is, less unfairly, "a very British space opera"; rather downbeat, full of all too recognisable problems that remain perennially unsolved and with an odd, drawn out and ambiguously subdued ending following the "spectacular interstellar romp".
To sum up: 800 years in the future a star is discovered to be on an artificially accelerated course which will lead it into collision with our solar system in little over a millennium. Official and unofficial missions are sent to intercept the star's course and work out where it comes from but are waylaid by, respectively, 28th century equivalents of the old cargo cults, fiendish plots by near immortal humans, inexplicable alien technology, interstellar wormholes, dangerous highly-advanced alien civilisations and reclusive even-more-highly-advanced alien civilisations.
There's simply huge amounts going on all the time and some wonderfully fascinating details (including one of the best descriptions I've ever read of the way that stars die, on page 112). Importantly, although the action sometimes happens on a galactic scale it's the individual human characters who are the centre of attention. Just as a contemporary author would not write a story about a writer which was based upon his amazing word processor, McAuley, like many of the best sf writers, doesn't rely on technology and far out spectacle to hold your interest. It's the users of technology who are highlighted, not the usage.
Having said this, McAuley's actual depictions of individuals within the story are never quite satisfactorily fleshed out, which left me disappointingly cold to the climaxes of the book. The central character Dorthy Yoshida never quite engaged my interest in the same way that Robot/Machine and Suzy Falcon, another two of the major characters did, despite the fact that one has divided the two lobes of his brain to give himself a useful form of schizophrenia whilst the other is a none too bright unemployed suicidal fighter pilot.
I suspect the problem is that there's just simply too much in this book. Where, in almost any other book, you might reasonably expect the story to end, Eternal Light continues unsatisfactorily (because too little realised) onwards. Whilst no fan of bloated trilogies this gave me anxiety attacks thinking I'd wandered into the Book Two or even Three of a series without realising it, so rich is the barely hinted at history and background to McAuley's universe. But, after all of these complaints, I did for the most part enjoy Eternal Light, indeed my complaint is that I wanted more, not less.
I wouldn't be at all surprised if in the not-too-distant future Eternal Light comes to be seen as a perfectly respectable practice run for a truly groundbreaking and monumental work of sf by McAuley, because if ever there was an author just waiting to step into Clarke's shoes, I'll wager it's this one.
Elsewhere in infinity
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© Stuart Carter 4 December 1999