Robyn Reviews: A History of What Comes Next

‘A History of What Comes Next’ is an enormously clever book, part alternate history and part science fiction novel. The writing style will likely be polarising, but for those who appreciate something a bit different it’s an exceptionally worthwhile read.

Germany, 1945. Nineteen-year-old Mia is sent from America to infiltrate the Nazis and locate Wernher von Braun, Germany’s most esteemed rocket scientist. Her mission is to get hold of von Braun and his missile technology before the Russians can capture it. Naturally, von Braun is suspicious. But Mia isn’t an ordinary nineteen-year-old – in fact, she isn’t even human. Her people have been secretly shaping human innovation for thousands of years. But is her help benevolent, or does it spell the dawn of a greater danger?

There are two primary perspectives, Mia and her mother Sarah, and both are fascinating. On the face of it, both they and their thoughts resemble humans – but as the story progresses, both the differences and similarities become more stark. Sarah has long accepted her people’s way and differing morality, whereas Mia questions, creating interesting ethical conundrums. Where Sarah is relatively solitary, caring only about her daughter and a distant friend, Mia forms attachments – a scenario which, again, creates smaller whirlpools within the larger chaos. Personally, I found Mia’s perspective easier to relate to, but I suspect Sarah’s will resonate with all who have experienced parenthood.

Neuvel takes slight liberties with the order of innovations, but by and large draws his inspiration from actual historical events. The inside depictions of the Soviet-American space race are fascinating. The political backdrop of World War Two and the subsequent descent into the Cold War meshes surprisingly well with the more speculative, alien elements, and its easy to believe Sarah and Mia could actually have had a hand in it. There are also brief mentions of other major events – Sarah’s only friend, Hsue-Shen Tsien, is a Chinese man in America amidst the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, and there are little snippets of the ensuing racial and political tension. Similarly, Mia becomes close with a woman named Billie, a Black woman whose family fled the US for Russia with the introduction of the Jim Crow laws. These little extras add important historical context and paint a rich tapestry for the action that unfolds.

The writing style is sedate, with an almost stream-of-consciousness style. Some will likely find this slow or irritating, but I found seeing into the heads of Mia and Sarah brilliant. Neuvel perfectly captures the otherness of their alien heritage, whilst balancing the influences of their Earth upbringing and attachments. He also deftly avoids dumping large amounts of information in one place, instead weaving just enough into the narrative to clearly understand what’s happening without being overwhelmed. In places, the flow is broken up with an abrupt twist. The first time this happens it feels jarring, but as the story moves on it works – again, it feeds into the stream-of-consciousness, the mind following a thread then suddenly being distracted by another one.

Overall, ‘A History of What Comes Next’ is a bold novel, but one that speculative fiction readers should find plenty to love about. Recommended for fans of alternate history and novels unafraid to challenge convention.

Thanks to Penguin Michael Joseph for providing a finished copy – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Penguin Michael Joseph
Hardback: 4th March 2021

Robyn Reviews: Skyward Inn

‘Skyward Inn’ is a beautifully written and profoundly strange piece of speculative fiction. It goes in a completely different direction to what I expected before picking it up, with creepy, almost gothic, undertones, but the quality of the writing makes it hard to look away.

Skyward Inn is a place of refuge – a place people of the Western Protectorate come to drink brew and reminisce on simpler times before the war between Earth and Qita. Run by a human, Jem, and a Qitayan, Isley, both veterans of the war, it epitomises the peace that now exists between the races. But peace is a fragile thing, and the arrival of an unexpected friend of Isley’s threatens to upset the balance. As things start to change, Jem must decide where her loyalties lie.

The story is told from two perspectives – Jem’s, in first person, and Fosse’s, in third. The perspectives change regularly, so the use of both first and third person works well, clearly delineating which character is being followed. Jem is a fascinating character. She fled her home in the Western Protectorate as soon as she could, abandoning her family for adventure – and formed a strong connection with Isley, another outsider who’d never quite felt they fit in. She and Isley spent years trading stories, eventually returning to the Western Protectorate (once Devon) to open their Inn. Jem is a fiercely independent woman, the sort who struggles to form any deep connection with anyone – and as time goes on, it becomes clear that she doesn’t even know Isley as well as she should. She feels guilty for abandoning her family, but at the same time she sees the world more in dreams than reality, and a life shackled to the same village is no place for a dreamer.

Fosse is a teenager struggling with his changing desires. Raised by his uncle Dom, he doesn’t feel like he quite fits – he’s not accepted by the other children, and he’s frequently overwhelmed by urges like anger. Fosse is harder for me to relate to than Jem, but he makes an intriguing counterpart – very different in many ways but also very similar in some. His naivety and raging emotions are painted starkly by Whiteley, and whilst his head isn’t always a comfortable place to be, it’s undeniably very human.

The plot is slow, spreading out gradually like a fungus. The reader is introduced to the characters and setting – a very recognisable traditional rural village in many ways, albeit with a few stark differences – with Jem and Fosse seeming very separate, before everything is gradually brought together in an intricate web of connections. About halfway through, the book changes tone, going from a literary science fiction novel to more audacious and strange speculative fiction. The first half is more my speed than the second, but both are brilliantly written and nothing feels out of place. The ending is fitting, leaving a few loose ends but not so many that the book feels incomplete. It’s an intriguing concept, and while it’s not one I expected it’s certainly thought-provoking and intelligently done.

Overall, ‘Skyward Inn’ is a clever – if odd in places – speculative fiction novel that lingers beyond the last page. It isn’t what I expected from the blurb, but equally it’s an impossible novel to summarise without giving anything away. Recommended for fans of speculative fiction and literary fiction that goes a bit off piste.

Published by Solaris
Hardback: 18th March 2021

Book Review: The Complex

The Complex, by Michael Walters, is set in the near future. Technology has being harnessed to carry out many tasks. AI that we already know of has been further developed. There has been a war although few details of this are provided. What is clear is that the structure of the world portrayed has subtly changed.

Two couples and their teenage children are to spend a week together at a luxurious if remote retreat. Awe at the beautiful location and scale of the place is soon overtaken by concern over an occasional malevolence. Although it is still spring, the fruit and vegetables in the extensive gardens are ripening. The place is off grid and appears to harbour its own climate.

The story opens in a self driving car as Gabrielle and Leo Hunter leave the Areas accompanied by their son, Stefan, for a week’s holiday. The family have been under stress since the death of Gabrielle’s father. One of her clients, Art Fisher, has invited the family to join him, along with his wife and daughter, at a place he has access to in the mountains. Although wary, Gabrielle has agreed. As all will soon find out, Art can be persuasive.

Stefan and Art’s daughter, Fleur, are both preparing for their Finals after which they must decide on their future careers. Art has plans for Fleur to join him at the influential Fisher Industries. She has other ideas that she is pursuing in secret. Stefan is considering harnessing his tennis skills to turn professional. He has little interest in the studying his parents wish him to engage in during their week away.

Despite the glorious views and sunshine, the house in which the two families stay is a shadowy presence that increasingly gets inside the residents’ heads. Vivid dreams are recounted in which their backstories merge with the present. Gabrielle is taking medication and regularly needs to sleep, something Art encourages. Leo is disturbed by his faltering short term memory, struggling to differentiate between the fantasies he indulges in featuring Art’s wife, Polly, and the reality of their interactions. While the adults struggle to navigate a situation that is turning to quicksand, the children explore a virtual reality game. There is a need to interpret what is happening in the physical world and how this is affected by episodes playing out in each of their heads.

As the pernicious house gives up its secrets certain answers are provided. Readers must also immerse themselves in the labyrinth of connections and speculations. Control is being fought for in a game where the objectives and conditions of participation are unclear.

There are shades in the writing of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, although The Complex is much more accessible and compelling. The questioning of developments brought to mind the first season of Dark which I have recently been watching on Netflix.

Well paced and skilfully constructed this twisty and disturbing story had me questioning the virulence of technology we all too easily accept. It is a layered and deliciously unsettling read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.