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Engineman by Eric Brown

1/12/2010. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy Engineman in the USA - or Buy Engineman in the UK

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pub: Solaris/Rebellion Publishing/HarperCollins. 510 page small enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-907519-42-0.

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I have reviewed several of Eric Brown’s recent SF novels for SFCrowsnest over the last year and I’ve been impressed by all of them. So when I saw that Solaris were about to publish a revised edition of ‘Engineman’, an early novel originally published by TOR in 1994, I was intrigued. Why were they going to Brown’s back catalogue when he seems to be pretty prolific with new material? However, now I’ve read the book, I can understand why Solaris wanted to bring it back into print. It’s a great story and deserves a wide audience. The fact that the volume also includes eight short stories set in the same universe is an unexpected bonus that makes this book well worth getting hold of.

Ralph Mirren is a washed-up former Engineman. He used to be important, one of the men and women who were able to drive starships through the Nada-continuum, the hyperspace that made faster-than-light space travel a possibility. However, when the new technology of the Interfaces emerged, allowing people to travel instantaneously from one planet to another, thousands of light years distant, simply by walking or driving through a huge screen, the starship lines went bust and the Enginemen were made redundant. Now Ralph shifts cargo containers around at Orly Spaceport, where one of the dreaded Interfaces sits and he dreams of the ecstasy he used to experience every time he fluxed in the continuum.

When Ralph is approached by rich off-worlder Hirst Hunter and offered a large sum of money to push a ship through the continuum one more time, he signs up immediately, even though Hunter refuses to tell him where the ship is going or why. Ralph also persuades several of his former Engineman colleagues to join him. When they start dying in mysterious circumstances immediately after doing the deal with Hunter, Ralph starts to wonder what he’s got himself mixed up in.

Under pressure, Hunter reluctantly explains that he used to be a senior executive in the Danzig Organisation, a market leader in the Interface business. He knew they were ruthless with the competition but when he found out that they were responsible for the almost complete annihilation of a race of intelligent aliens on the world of Hennessy’s Reach, he decided he’d had enough and quit. The aliens, known as the Lho, were able to commune with the Nada-continuum and had realised that the Interfaces were slowly destroying it. When they brought this information to the attention of the Danzig Organisation, asking for the Interfaces to be closed down, the Organisation decided instead to get rid of the whistleblowers in a systematic xenocide.

Now Hunter is trying to rescue the few remaining Lho from extinction. He intends to bring them back to Earth so that they can share their warning with world governments and get the Interfaces closed down. Unsurprisingly, the Danzig Organisation has no intention of letting that happen. That’s why Ralph and his friends are suddenly targets. Can they fulfil Hunter’s mission before the Danzig assassins catch up with them?

I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Engineman’. Like most of Brown’s stories, the SF plot and setting are used to explore the lives of a set of complex, three-dimensional characters. Many of the character types that Brown has returned to in his later novels are here in embryonic form. Ralph is a loner who is uncomfortable in company. Several of the other characters are artists, telepaths or private investigators. They make for a rich setting and Brown plays the characters off each other with great skill, drawing the reader in and making you care what happens.

My only gripe about the novel concerns its resolution. Hunter’s intention is to force the closure of all the Interfaces, to stop the damage they are doing to the Nada-continuum. A laudable aim, certainly but a difficult one to achieve, given the economic consequences, including large-scale unemployment, that such a change would potentially bring with it, even if the Interfaces were replaced by spaceships and Enginemen again. Although these practical difficulties are alluded to, Brown allows them to be overcome rather too easily. However, that one issue aside, it is difficult to find anything else to criticise here.

As I mentioned earlier, the last third of the book is taken up by eight short stories set in the ‘Engineman’ universe and originally published in ‘Interzone’ and elsewhere between 1987 and 1991. The highlight for me was ‘The Time-Lapsed Man’, which won the Interzone Readers’ Poll in 1988 and which tells the tale of Max Thorn, an Engineman whose repeated fluxing into and out of the Nada-continuum leads to him contracting a strange and ultimately fatal condition. On returning from a trip, he realises that he has gone temporarily deaf. However, an hour later he starts to hear the sounds he missed earlier.

As time goes on, the delay in his hearing gets longer, before his other senses start to go the same way. As the condition gets worse, Max’s estranged wife comes to see him and her attempts at reconciliation, each of which is rejected by Max, are heart-wrenching. This is a well-told story which pulls you in and makes you feel great compassion for the otherwise rather unsympathetic Max. The other seven stories are a mixed bunch but I enjoyed them all. They fill out different aspects of the story universe and complement the novel very well. I’m really glad that Solaris included them in the book.

In conclusion, although ‘Engineman’ may be one of Eric Brown’s earliest novels, it is a strong tale which showcases his storytelling talents. This revised edition presents the story to very good effect, not least because of the additional short stories and the beautiful cover art by Dominic Harman. I am extremely glad that Solaris have put ‘Engineman’ back in print and would urge you to put it on your Christmas list.

Patrick Mahon

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