Friday, 11 February 2011

John Meaney: Absorption (2010)

When does hype become unbelievable? John Meaney, according to Stephen Baxter (as quoted on the cover of Absorption), "has rewired SF. Everything is different now".  Absorption also had nothing but five star reviews on Amazon at the time of writing. So this is a book which should be spectacularly good: this is the sort of praise associated with classics of the genre such as Neuromancer. In Absorption's case, the hype is somewhat at odds as the rather pulp style cover, which suggests that the contents will be more E.E. "Doc" Smith than William Gibson. It's a lazy piece of design which will hardly do the book any favours, no matter how good it is.

Absorption is a fragmented narrative, with chapters concentrating on characters from the eighth century AD to the twenty seventh. These are people living more or less normal lives, for their times, until they discover something which they have in common and they are mysteriously brought together. It's quite slow, and it takes about 150 pages for the reader to find out anything about what it is, which makes the story quite an unfocused read. I suspect that anyone who isn't a fan of the genre will give up fairly quickly and consider Absorption incomprehensible and boring (it is certainly rather slow moving in places, and the fragmentation doesn't help Meaney move things along). It does eventually make more sense, though it is clear that there will still be unanswered questions right to the end: this is, after all, volume one of a trilogy. However, I don't think that Meaney chooses the best way to reveal information; stories in which everything seems to be revealed only for deeper secrets to become apparent work better for me than ones in which we keep on being told that there are secrets, but details are revealed extremely slowly: much of Absorption seems to tantalise for the sake of it, and this is irritating as well as dull.

Another aspect which is surprising, given the description by Steven Baxter, is just how much is owed to older genre classics. There is some distinctly Heinleinesque banter in places, while the use of the name Jed for one of the characters makes it particularly easy to pick up Star Wars similarities, which (perhaps unfortunately) are mainly apparent in the dialogue. The main feature of Absorption which is derivative is the plot, which is basically a "superheroes-discover-their-powers" one, with the twist that the group of superheroes is separated by time and distance. The elements of the novel have appeared before in the genre, and have been better done; however, I can't think of any other book which combines these ideas in this way, so there is at least originality in that.

Most of what I have said suggests that I didn't like Absorption. I found it hard to get into, enjoyed the middle, and was frustrated by the ending. I object more to the way it has been over-hyped than to the book itself. I might go on to read Meaney's earlier books, but I don't think I'll bother with the rest of the trilogy. Interesting, more or less readable; but not especially significant and certainly not worthy of the praise it has garnered, is my verdict. My rating: 5/10.

Edition: Gollancz, 2010
Review number: 1414

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