Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Brakespeare Voyage

It has occurred to me that there are people who may object to the following on the basis of its revealing certain details of a book they may not have read, or spoilers as is the generally accepted but nevertheless irritating term. Whilst I can appreciate that if one is a fan of detective fiction, a review praising and detailing the ingenuity of the means by which the butler did it might diminish one's reading pleasure, but there are limits - one of which was crossed when I recently found myself berated for revealing a specific plot detail of a television show first broadcast fifteen years ago. Seeing as I write these reviews principally for my own pleasure, as a means by which I compel myself to attend greater scrutiny upon a particular story than I might ordinarily have done, I feel no strong obligation to protect the fragile enjoyment valves of those whose reading pleasure is based principally on plot twists and revelations, who might be better served by a fucking jigsaw puzzle than a novel or comic book. So just to be absolutely clear, if you can't stand the thought of discovering something about a particular piece of fiction prior to actually reading it, please don't bother with my reviews.

Whilst we're here, I suppose I should also admit to a possible degree of bias on my part in respect to the following in that I wrote Against Nature, the previous Faction Paradox novel published by Obverse Books, and I painted the cover of this one, and will probably be painting the cover of the next one.

Jonathan Dennis & Simon Bucher-Jones The Brakespeare Voyage (2013)
I've been waiting for this a long time, at least since Mad Norwegian Press dropped the Faction Paradox ball and a seemingly wistful Simon Bucher-Jones posted the proposal and outline for a then abandoned novel called Nebaioth on his blog. Nebaioth sounded phenomenal - an author renowned for massive, wonderfully bizarre ideas extrapolated from the weirder realms of nosebleed physics really turning the volume up to eleven and letting it all hang out, if that isn't too gruesome a simile. Years later, I experienced a minor resurgence of squee upon discovering what all the banging noises coming from the cell next to mine had been, and then a fairly serious nerdgasm when our beloved Faction Paradox hitched its wagon to one of those publishers which likes to put out a book every once in a while just to see what happens mutter mumble don't get me started...

The Brakespeare of the title is a ship the size of a small universe, its decks, bridge, and rigging made up of stars, planets, and entire cultures. Its mission is the retrieval of an earlier ship from the outer darkness beyond our own spacetime, and ultimately a quest for the sort of extracosmic biodata which can only be found out there beyond the brane universes described by some of the stranger theories of contemporary physics, biodata which it is hoped will yield an advantage in the War of the Faction Paradox mythos.

You can pretend it's the Doctor Who Telly Zoo time war if you like, and whilst you're there you might also like to pretend that Busted were the Sex Pistols.

Simon Bucher-Jones - assuming The Brakespeare Voyage to have been his baby in its formative stage - is a master of this sort of fiction, specifically the novel which can be only a novel because it wouldn't work in any other medium, and does one hell of a lot more than simply describe a sequence of visual images. I'm less familiar with the writing of Jonathan Dennis, although what little I've read has been of a quality to suggest this collaboration being effected on very much equal terms; and the end result forms a beautifully woven whole with no suggestion of variant voices bolted together.

Nebaioth himself turns out to be a central figure, significantly named after the Biblical son of Ishmael who in turn gave a name to the narrator of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Further specific parallels are not overly pronounced beyond, I suppose, Captain Robert Scarratt's obsession representing a more measured version of that which drove Captain Ahab onwards, and Leviathan entities beyond the edge of our universe roughly equating to whales, although there's a reasonable chance I may not actually know what I'm talking about here. A more general comparison can be found in the strongly nautical thrust of the entire narrative which proves so dominant as to surely warrant The Brakespeare Voyage being termed nautical science-fiction despite the cosmic setting. Given the predominance of high-seas imagery coupled with a certain seventeenth century flavour, this novel puts me strongly in mind of the ur-science-fiction of Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe and others - voyages made beyond the limits of the world as was known at the time, and the investigation of terra incognita discussed as an imaginative rather than purely scientific endeavour. I'm inclined to suspect this may be significant given the purpose of the mission driving both the Brakespeare and its predecessor, ultimately the introduction of new data to a closed system, in this case our universe. This presents a broader restatement of a central theme of the War, as mapped out in The Book of the War and others, namely the
forces of the inverted in conflict with those of the imaginative.

If that possibly verbose summary casts The Brakespeare Voyage as one of those novels about which people on bulletin boards make observations along the lines of I couldn't get my head around it, what with all the words and stuff before dashing off elsewhere to praise the stratospheric brilliance of a slightly Shakespearey episode of Charmed, then it probably shouldn't. Even the most ludicrous concepts found here are beautifully communicated with the atmosphere and sobriety of Ursula LeGuin at her finest, and whilst the narrative is sometimes information dense, it flows like a good wine. I occasionally had difficulty recalling quite who was working for what, but not so much as to present problems, and I've a feeling certain allegiances may have been purposefully ambiguous in a few cases.

In all honesty I haven't read anything this good in a long, long time, and nor have I read anything quite like it. It really has been worth the wait.

Purchase your copy here, then purchase additional copies for all of your friends, and just keep buying until it outsells Alastair Reynolds and accrues the recognition it most certainly deserves.

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