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The arrival of the aliens (The Kethani) would normally be the final chapter in a science fiction book, but Eric Brown has them turning up in the first few pages (and only about 5 miles from my house, bit of a worry!).
The narrative is more focused on the reaction and impact to the local residents than the aliens themselves, and their stories and histories form the rest of the novel. This is a well constructed and well paced novel although I did have the feeling that the stories may well have been written at different times as short stories and then 'shoehorned' into this longer book.
The stories all seem to take place in quite severe winter conditions despite being set over several years, it's never really clear if this is something to do with the alien Kethani or just a coincidence but it does seem to add a feeling that these protaganists are disconnected from other communities which was perhaps the authors intention.
The motives and intricacies of the Kethani are not really investigated, although as the humans in the story are also left fairly in the dark about them this seems fair, ultimately a little more does emerge in the last couple of chapters.
I enjoyed the book and found it very easy to read, some science fiction books can be very impenetrable
for casual readers but I flew through this in three days. This is the third Eric Brown book I have read and I will be looking for more.
There are broadly speaking two viewpoints from which science fiction is written. Let's call one Executive and the other Blue-collar.
Executive science fiction is the high level, galaxy-shaping stuff. Star Wars would be an example, as would Frank Herbert's Due series. Both of these deal with inter-galactic politics, the shaping and destruction of worlds and the movement of millions of lives, moved around namelessly like a game of Risk.
Blue-collar science fiction is at the other end of the scale. The frequently confused, usually isolated character caught up in something they don't understand. Alien is an example, as is John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids. This viewpoint has always engaged me more than executive science fiction, which is more of a passive, voyeuristic experience.
Kethani fits into this second category, with one difference from any other example I can think of. Rather than a sense of confusion, there is a sense of tranquility.
The idea is a simple one, playing on one of humanity's great 'what if...' questions. What would our lives be like if we were given the chance to be immortal?
There doesn't appear to be any catches. One day, thousands of giant white needles appear all over the world, and an alien race, the Kethani tell the populace they are giving them the gift of immortality. The process takes place immediately after a person's death, so in a sense they are resurrected. There is no pressure put upon these people, known as Returners, but they are offered a choice - they can return home to the lives they led before, or they can go out into the galaxy as ambassadors of the Kethani.
This is all back-story, so i'm not really spoiling anything for you. Like I said, this is Blue-collar science fiction, so the actual story unfolds at a much lower level. There are, in fact, several stories told from different viewpoints. This means we get to see the positive and negative impact of the Kethani from a range of perspectives. The common link is these characters all meet every Tuesday evening in their local pub, drinking and talking about the world around them. I found this similar to Douglas Coupland's style, of which I am a big fan.
The narrative unfolds in two ways. First of all, despite the amazing no-strings-attached gift offered by the Kethani, some people have reservations. These are for various reasons, in scenarios played out in ways that elicit a range of emotional responses as you read. Other people can't wait to embrace this opportunity, with immortality being secondary to having the chance to live in a better way.
The second way in which the narrative unfolds is the idea I talked about, that something huge is happening around the central characters. Things so big, they are barely touched on, because we couldn't understand the scale or complexity of them. Initially I found this frustrating. I wanted to learn more about these enigmatic aliens and their gift. But the story works much better because we are not given the detail to grasp these ideas.
My only criticism is that after a while the book becomes too formulaic. Each new chapter focuses on a new character, or so it seems. This means you have to form an opinion from scratch, rather than having a flowing narrative. Sometimes this works, but other times it is too clunky. There is never a massive amount of character elaboration or detail which I have slight negative feelings about, however you may see this as a positive thing.
It's a very easy book to read which could appeal to a wide audience demographic. It could equally appeal to few people, so I guess you'll need to give it a go to find out. Superb as a travel book, the fact the story seems to unfold in near-permanent snow-fall makes it idea to read during Winter.
---------- Product Information ----------
RRP: £10.99 (£5.49 from Amazon)
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Black Library (6 May 2008)
Product Dimensions: 22.9 x 15 x 2.3 cm