Personally I think that Europe in Autumn should have picked up at least a few awards last year, and Europe at Midnight should be doing the same this year. Dave Hutchinson has done good steady work for some time, but all at once he has stepped up a gear and is producing really powerful, beautifully crafted work. My review of Europe at Midnight was first published in Vector 282, Winter 2015/16.
In his 2004 collection, As the Crow Flies, Dave Hutchinson included a story that has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it. “On the Windsor Branch” is presented as a catalogue entry in a sale of cartographic curiosities, the curiosity being the one surviving sheet of an alternative to the Ordnance Survey begun by General H. Whitton-Whyte in 1770. What is curious about this map, we discover only in the footnotes, is that it shows to the west of London the county of Ernshire where we normally understand Windsor, Staines and Heathrow to exist. And since the map is the territory, there is a version of reality in which one can travel to Ernshire.
This story now forms the spine about which Hutchinson has constructed Europe at Midnight, the sequel to his justly-praised Europe in Autumn.
It should be said straight away that this is not a direct sequel. Anyone expecting a straightforward continuation of the previous story is doomed to disappointment. Rudi, the chef turned coureur who led us through the first volume reappears only in the final pages; and the fragmented Europe that was such a politically acute and stunningly realised feature of Europe in Autumn is here visited only briefly.
We begin, rather, in a university, a university at war with itself. A university, moreover, that has a Professor of Intelligence who jokingly calls himself Rupert of Hentzau and who serves as our narrator. There has recently been a civil war in which the old government of the university has been overthrown, many of them killed. As part of the new order, our narrator has been landed with the most unwelcome and least supported job on the campus. His role is two-fold: to keep a nervous eye on the Science faculty, which does not accept the new order and which is rumoured to be developing a devastating weapon; and to investigate the groups who keep trying to escape the campus, usually dying in the attempt. In the end, Rupert (eventually we learn to call him Tommy, but somehow the quixotic Rupert seems a much more apposite identifier) decides to trace one of these supposed escape routes.
Meanwhile, in a miserably rundown London a man claiming asylum is stabbed in a motiveless attack on a bus. Jim, a tired security agent with a failing marriage, is called on to investigate, and finds himself unexpectedly part of a top secret committee studying something he can’t quite believe: that there is a parallel England accessible through a curious twist in reality.
One researcher has spent her life tracing rumours and reports about Ernshire, and the man on the bus may just be the clue she has been waiting for. The man is, of course, Rupert, who managed to sail out of the pocket universe that is the university and into Nottingham. One of the joys of Hutchinson’s novel is that his most extravagant inventions are always anchored to the mundane, the grandest of events are in the most ordinary of locations. It turns out that Rupert escaped only just in time; behind him, the Science faculty exploded an atomic bomb that rendered the whole of the pocket universe uninhabitable. This proves to be par for the course, as we slowly realise that the university was isolated in its own pocket universe precisely to provide an isolation zone for weapons research. And the Science faculty has already manufactured the Xian flu that so devastated Europe it paved the way for the political fragmentation we have already seen in Europe in Autumn.
There is, therefore, though it takes a good proportion of the book before we realise this, a war going on between Ernshire and the Europe we know. Though Europe is so concerned with its own discords and woes that it doesn’t even realise it is under attack.
Well, except for Jim’s secret committee. One of the delights of the first novel was the satirical underpinning of the story. In the new volume, that satire is most obvious in the committee. As more is learned about Ernshire and the university, so the committee grows, until the original members are frozen out by a huge and unwieldy body largely composed of politicians and business leaders who see Ernshire not as a threat that has already been responsible for the deaths of millions, but as an untapped commercial opportunity. There is a consistent sad comedy about the workings of the committee, a tone of voice that is, to be fair, typical of Hutchinson’s writing as a whole. There is science fictional invention galore throughout both of these books, but the response that is invited is less awe and amazement than sorrow. In this world, everyone screws up, and the bigger the organisation the bigger the screw up; and we all suffer as a result.
Another example of this sad comedy is in one of the few ventures into the Europe riven into myriad statelets familiar from the first book. In this instance, it is Dresden. This, we are told, is one of the wealthiest polities in Europe, it is also one of the most paranoid. The portion of Dresden that has declared independence offers specialist computer services, no questions asked, and it has made a lot of money as a result. But it is so in love with security that it has built a wall around itself, and no one is allowed to leave or enter. Everything is taken care of, except the main sewer, and when the sewer collapses, they have no alternative but to call in outside help. The irony is delicious: their high tech, high flown security is breached because they didn’t pay attention to the most basic, the most mundane of human needs.
On the other hand, what the Dresden sewer does show is how thoroughly Hutchinson has thought through the detailed workings of his world. There is a running joke about the Eurovision Song Contest, now an inevitably complex and cumbersome affair, that is both very funny and very revealing about how such a fragmentary Europe might function. Whenever we catch a glimpse, even tangentially, of this broken jigsaw puzzle of a continent it feels just right. This, we are confident, is exactly how these lunatic, paranoid statelets would operate; exactly the degree of criminal intent or political self-serving or fear of the other that would drive their creation; exactly the way they would succeed or, more likely, fail. These two novels, now apparently labouring under the collective title of the Fractured Europe Sequence, are an object lesson in world building. We know this Europe, there is an ineluctable truth in it, and yet its multifarious details are presented to us not heavy handedly, not through ponderous info dumps, but lightly in asides and jokes and through a surprisingly attractive world-weariness.
So convincing is this Europe, so various and intriguing, that it comes as something of a shock to realise just how little of this novel is set there. At the end of Europe in Autumn, Rudi the coureur crosses a different border into a different universe, and it is that crossing that Hutchinson has chosen to pursue in this novel. That different universe, we assume, is Ernshire, as envisaged, mapped and created by Whitton-Whyte more than two centuries before. (I say “assume” because another possibility is opened up, literally, during Rupert’s brief visit behind the walls of Dresden, but that possibility is not followed up here, but rather hangs like a promise awaiting the third volume.) Therefore, by a series of contrivances (some of which, it must be said, feel rather too contrived), Rupert travels from the university to London to fractured Europe and eventually, inevitably, into Ernshire.
In keeping with its origin, Ernshire proves to be a bucolic image of rural England, conservative, slow, sparsely populated and picturesque. Except that by now the county extends over the whole landmass of Europe. What we get are slow journeys by unreliable rail services between widely dispersed towns and villages, or cities still in thrall to the aristocracy. Here we get a taste of Hutchinson’s political anger as he provides a glimpse of the hard life of the poor labouring in dangerous conditions for minimal wages under uncaring capitalists. It’s a pity really that this is presented as an aside, as a bit of local background colour while Rupert tries to discover who might be behind the cross-universe attacks, rather than as part of the narrative thrust of the novel.
There is a passage in Europe in Autumn when Rudi is held as a prisoner in London which I felt slowed the pace of the novel to an almost fatal degree. The section set within Ernshire does much the same for this novel, and because it comes that much later in the story, it is not so easy to pick the pace up again afterwards. Hutchinson manages the trick, but at the expense of a somewhat frantic feel to the climax of the novel. A more direct political attack within the Ernshire section might well have kept up the pace better.
Nevertheless, Europe at Midnight proves to be every bit as compelling a story as its predecessor. It suffers, perhaps inevitably, from the problem of being the middle volume in a trilogy, filling in some of the background and laying trails that can be picked up in the concluding volume. Both Rupert and Jim come across as slightly colourless when compared to Rudi, largely because his passion for food and cooking gave him an interest outside the strict demands of the plot; yet they hold our interest and sympathy, and steer us through a plot that is at times highly complex. Hutchinson is an assured storyteller, and if the new book doesn’t quite have the impact and originality of Europe in Autumn, it still holds its own, and promises that the completed trilogy will be one of the major works of science fiction this decade.