Sunday 2 March 2014

Eidolon by Libby McGugan

My attention was caught by a review in Interzone 250 of Eidolon, the first novel by Libby McGugan, together with an interview with the author. The story sounded promising, so I ordered a copy. The plot is set in the present day and concerns Robert Strong, a young theoretical physicist who is contacted by the Observation Research Board, a shadowy but powerful organisation. ORB presents convincing research evidence that the experiments with the CERN Large Hadron Collider may result in the creation of "strangelets", sub-atomic particles which, by interacting with ordinary matter, could destroy our present reality. However, CERN had dismissed the risk, so ORB wants Strong to sabotage their research before it is too late.

So far the plot seems like a techno-thriller with a rather more fundamental plot than most, and (as far as I am competent to judge) the author has done her research into theoretical physics while displaying her knowledge with a light touch that doesn't distract from the story. What struck me first about the novel is how beautifully and intelligently written it is, how full of perceptive observations. It's difficult to write a lot more without spoilers, so all I will say is that the plot develops in very unexpected and increasingly strange directions that compel Strong to question his understanding of the nature of reality.

Eidolon is that rare thing, a novel with a unique and intriguing plot that has no respect for traditional genre boundaries. The only other book I have read in recent years of which I could say the same is China Miéville's The City and the City. While Eidolon is complete in itself, the world the author has created clearly has far more scope for exploration, so I was delighted to read in the interview that she is working on the sequel. That one will go straight to the top of my reading pile!


Another book I picked up having read good reviews was Paul McAuley's The Quiet War, the first of a series of four (to date). The author's name sounded vaguely familiar and having looked up the list of his publications I suspect I may have read at least one before – Pasquale's Angel – although I don't remember it. So I started with high expectations but found myself disappointed. The plot concerns a 23rd century environmental engineer from Earth trying to set up a new biome on Callisto against a background of tension between Earth and the colonised moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The problem I found is that the book is very heavy on description; in the first two chapters there are only a couple of brief snatches of conversation, all the rest is infodump. Furthermore, McAuley is a biologist by training, and while I always appreciate expert knowledge being applied to fiction, he allows his enthusiasm for the nuts and bolts of biome creation to override the priority for a good story. The pace accelerates later but the action is still frequently put on hold for yet more technical description, and I never became fully engaged with the characters or the plot. I was reminded of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, which was similarly dominated by the setting to the extent that it seemed the author was more interested in writing a detailed "how to terraform Mars" handbook than a novel. I persevered with The Quiet War until I had read over 70 pages but finally asked myself "do I want to spend a few more hours on this or would I rather stop and try something else?" As I have a huge pile of books to read the answer was easy, so I stopped.

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