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by David Zindell

(HarperCollins Voyager, £5.99, 700 pages, paperback; published February 1990.)

There's nothing more irritating to me than reading a good book all the way through, then realising that it's the last in a series. Happily for me then, Neverness describes the events leading up to David Zindell's Requiem for Homo Sapiens trilogy.

Let me make no bones about Zindell's writing. It is superb.

In attempts to create plausible future societies, many authors resort to cliché or give in to the temptation to caricature present-day social structures. Zindell just dumped the whole lot in the bin and set about building a cohesive whole where vocations like akashics, harijan, scryers, tinkers, cetics, wormrunners and warrior-poets have replaced the familiar professions of today. Yet we are soon so involved that the initial unfamiliarity is lost and we are swept along with the story.

The majority of the technology involved in the books (yes, I've now been through them all) is treated well, with emphasis being placed on the craftsmanship or elegance of a device, rather than the "gosh-wow-look-what-this-does" approach -- just as we treat hi-fis, cars, microwaves and so on today. Zindell uses this to illustrate how far apart the professions have grown, with no knowledge passing between them. His only in-depth treatment of the use of a technology is in describing how a pilot of a lightship traverses the galaxy from star to star, with all its strange geometry and mathematics. Without this, a lot of the impact of the craft of a pilot, and therefore its dangers, would be lost. For anyone put off SF by interminable chapters describing anti-gravity/wormholes/time machines/alien biology, this book is an ideal way to get into the field.

In a galaxy that includes insane computer "gods" the size of star systems, bizarre religious sects that worship death and poetry, men who have so altered their DNA across centuries as to be unrecognisable to ordinary humans, and a strange wavefront of exploding stars called "the Vild" which threatens to destroy the majority of humanity, we focus on the life of a young graduate pilot, Mallory Ringess, on the planet of Icefall, in the city of Neverness.

The overall story is huge and deeply complex, and leads, ultimately, to a quest for the meaning of life. Corny it may be as subject matter, but Zindell's almost spiritual handling of the revelations, as Mallory and his friends journey toward a deeper understanding of the universe and themselves, is something to behold. The canvas upon which the action takes place is masterfully drawn; there are hints of greater powers in the galaxy, intriguing glimpses into the lives of alien races, the descriptions of the city of Neverness itself are superb and the characterisations are rich and varied.

Neverness is told in the first person from the perspective of Mallory himself. He's a young, impetuous, and sometimes absolutely infuriating man, yet Zindell has the reader empathising with him as he goes through a succession of physical and mental trials. In fact, even when the idiot has dug himself into such a big hole that he frankly deserves what's coming, you still feel a rueful kinship with him. Brutally honest, brave, egotistical and often plain stupid, Mallory's flaws are held up for all to see, and in him Zindell has created a believable protagonist.

Neverness is a very human story, set in a future where mankind has changed, yet some truths still seem the same. In battling with these forces Zindell, through Mallory, holds out hope for something more than a hand-to-mouth existence for humanity, without succumbing to over-the-top optimism. A fine, and very absorbing, read.

Review by Mark Spencer.

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