Very slowly, he turned to put has back to the street, hiding the briefcase with his body. He removed a glove and put his bare hand against the side of the case. It was hot. Not red hot. Not drop-it-right-here-and-run-like-hell hot. But it was still hot. Which, in Rudi’s experience, was a first for a piece of hand luggage.
Dave Hutchinson has been writing for a while. According to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, he had four volumes of short stories published during the late ’70s and early ’80s, before he turned 21. But before the Fractured Europe sequence of novels, he had just one previous published novel, The Villages (2001) *. Some of his short fiction is freely available on-line, and he provides links to these stories on his blog.
I got into Fractured Europe at the beginning, with Europe in Autumn (2014). It was briefly reviewed in the periodic “Fortean fiction” section of Fortean Times‘s book reviews, and I was intrigued by what seemed to be an espionage story set in an interesting near-future version of Europe. It was followed by Europe at Midnight (2015) and Europe in Winter (2016).
Europe in Autumn is set in a post-EU Europe. A combination of migrant crises, the endless War on Terror, and a lethal flu epidemic has made countries all across the continent default on their obligations to the European Union by closing their borders. Independence movements have also caused further internal fractures, and then a sort of wave of self-determination has swept across the continent, with ever-smaller statelets and polities coming into (sometimes brief) existence. By the time the novel begins, there is a railway line that operates as an independent nation; a national parks that has declared independence from its parent country; and a group of German football supporters who are attempting to found their own country in four Berlin flat-blocks.
The point-of-view character for much of the novel is Rudi, an Estonian cook working in Krakow, who is recruited by a rather shadowy organization called the Coureurs des Bois—an international courier service which, for a price, will move anything or anyone across any border. This involves all the mechanics of good old-fashioned espionage tradecraft—false passports, faked identities, encoded messages and recognition phrases—and Rudi simultaneously relishes and mocks the John le Carré affectations of his new profession. In fact, much of the pleasure of reading these novels comes from the world-weary humour of Hutchinson’s descriptions and characters—at times, they are very funny indeed. The quote at the head of this post gives you a sample of his understated style.
As a novel, I think Europe in Autumn reveals Hutchinson’s background in short stories and journalism—it is assembled from a series of almost self-contained episodes in Rudi’s career and life, each one a compact little gem containing its own cast of eccentric supporting characters. As the story progresses, Rudi comes under increasing threat from forces he doesn’t understand. Nothing quite makes sense. And Hutchinson is happy to leave Rudi (and us) puzzled—there is no final explanation in which all the loose ends come together:
Rudi sat for hours with the printout […], shuffling the pages, waiting for the movie moment, the moment when the hero claps his had to his forehead and cries, of course! The moment when all becomes clear.
It didn’t happen.
Instead, something quite remarkable happens. In the last fifty pages of the book, Rudi discovers the Big Secret that others have died to discover, or died to protect. Original reviewers of this book quite rightly kept this a secret, but it seems fair enough to reveal it here, given that it’s impossible to review the next two novels without mentioning it, and Hutchinson himself is now describing it in interviews. There is another Europe—a sort of pocket parallel universe, sharing the geography of our Europe, accessible from here at only a few points, and entirely colonized by English people.
I know. I didn’t see that one coming.
This version of Europe seems to have been more or less written into existence by a family of eccentric English cartographers during the nineteenth century, one of whom reports:
My grandfather writes of maps having a power over the land, and theorises that if an imaginary landscape is mapped in great enough detail, it will eventually supplant the actual physical landscape, as a wet cloth wipes chalk from a blackboard.
My great-grandfather, on the other hand, wrote of all possible landscapes underlying each other like the pages of a book, requiring only the production of a map of each landscape to make it real.
Blimey. Didn’t see that one coming, either. From near-future espionage to fantasy in under ten pages, and with very few more pages left to read.
The only word for that is audacious, and Hutchinson pulls it off by a sort of narrative force of will, slipstreaming the reader along through a couple of closing chapters that hint at more complexities than they reveal.
The next book, Europe at Midnight, opens in a very strange place—a country, of sorts, named the Campus; just two hundred miles across, surrounded by mountains, and organised as if it were a sort of gigantic university. The narrator is an intelligence officer in this community, who gradually finds out the he is inhabiting a very small pocket universe, somehow budded off from the parallel Europe (“the Community”) of the first novel.
In a separate narrative strand, we meet another member of the secret intelligence services, but this time working in the future England of our own world. The secret services of Hutchinson’s future Europe are understandably interested in the discovery of the Community, as are the Coureurs des Bois—if only the secret of moving back and forth between our fractured Europe and the (entirely borderless) Community can be mastered, it will open up a whole new world of espionage and smuggling possibilities.
As the two narrative strands move towards each other and finally combine, we find out more about how to get from one Europe to the other—winding paths that take unexpected turns, rivers that are oddly difficult to find, railway branch lines that have only an intermittent existence. And we find out what it’s like to visit a Europe inhabited only by the English:
Everyone in the Community was English. From one end of the Continent to the other. There were only English things here. There were no other languages, only regional dialects. No other cuisines but English. No other clothing styles but English. No other architectural styles but English. It was awful. After a year here I would gladly have lynched someone for a kebab. After two years, I would have committed mass murder for a portion of sweet and sour pork.
The narrative here is less episodic than in the first novel, which significantly reduces its pace, but Hutchinson’s writing is always interesting and entertaining. As the story reaches its conclusion, we begin to see connections with Europe in Autumn, some hints at explanations of events in that novel, and a suggestion that more explanations will occur in the next book.
I’ll close my review of this one with one of my favourite passages, which described the future evolution of a European cultural institution in Hutchinson’s fractured world:
There were five hundred and thirty-two entries in this Eurovision [Song Contest] – up from last year’s five hundred and twenty, but still a long way from the so-far record of six hundred and eight. In its own way, Eurovision was as good a reflector of the current state of the Continent as many Foreign Office briefings Jim had read during his career. Countries, polities, nations, sovereign states, principalities, all wanted to take part – the sundered wreckage of Ukraine and Moldova alone accounted for seventeen national entries – and one could analyse the voting patterns of the various national juries and sometimes see geopolitical trends developing.
By the start of Europe in Winter, the existence of the Community has become common knowledge in Europe—there are trade agreements and exchange visits and vacation trips. But the means of constructing connections between the two universes is still a secret, as is any hint of how someone could map a new universe into existence. Powerful and secret organizations are (as you might expect) very interested in finding this stuff out.
Rudi, the focus of the first novel, reappears, older and more jaded, but still trying to work out exactly what happened to him and why. But his experience is probably best summed up in his own words:
“Have you ever,” asked Rudi, “tried to tie up some of your life’s loose ends?”
“I’ve thought about it,” Forsyth said. “Now and again.”
“A bit of advice. Don’t. Some loose ends are better off left untied. I tried that.”
Hutchinson also returns to his novel-constructed-of-short-stories approach, only more so. Successive sections of the book introduce interesting, complicated, believable new characters, placing them in interesting (and usually stressful) new situations, and only slowly does the reader see where the new narrative is heading and how it is looping back towards Rudi and his quest for truth. Woven through these episodes, familiar characters from the previous novels reappear, and previous locations are revisited. Rudi has some success in his quest, leading to another Big Reveal, but there are also new mysteries.
This one’s certainly the most complex of the three novels, and it probably needs to be read in just a few sittings in order to keep track of what’s going on—definitely not one for the traditional three pages at bedtime before falling asleep.
So these three novels work as a trilogy—there’s a definite story arc between Europe in Autumn and Europe in Winter, with Europe at Midnight forming a bridge. But Solaris, the publisher, refers to them only as a “sequence”, and Hutchinson has said in his blog that he plans another book set in the same world(s), Europe at Dawn†. I’m certainly looking forward to another chance to watch Hutchinson juggle multiple story lines laced with dark humour.
And, with an impending Brexit, a threatened repeat of the Scottish independence referendum, and a Europe-wide hardening of attitudes to the plight of refugees, Hutchinson’s description of Fractured Europe seems increasingly prescient.
* In many ways, The Villages prefigures Fractured Europe—there’s an Eastern European setting, a cast of carefully created, eccentric and interesting supporting characters, and a story that sets off in one direction only to veer into High Strangeness. It’s slower paced and less darkly funny than the Fractured Europe novels, but if you like them you’ll probably find The Villages worth a try.