I have been lucky to find some gold nuggets amongst the dross recently. It is amongst my favourite things, to settle into a book, and to have the feeling grow, yeah, this is one of those, I like it, I really like it … The smile widens, time passes, and I throw up a silent thanks, and debate whether I pass the book onto one of my mates to share, or just pass on the name of title, from fear the book may never be returned (and yes, my fears are based on the number of volumes of “borrowed” books on my own shelves).
I really, really enjoyed Dave Hutchinson’s ‘Europe in Autumn’. Perhaps that is not enough for a review, or enough to convince you. Let’s take an oblique step back. I am currently reading, and thoroughly enjoying, ‘Germany: Memories of a Nation’ by Neil MacGregor. I have just read his description of the Holy Roman Empire, of the patchwork of principalities and duchies and independent cities collected under one Emperor, and how it worked and hobbled forward in its awkward way for a millenium. I live far away from Europe. In NSW, we mostly think of ourselves as Australians (with whatever other religious/ethnic/sporting identities we share with that), citizens of a large (in terms of geographical size) nation state. In other parts of Australia though, identity is more of a mixed bag. I leave aside the most obvious, that of our original people, the Aborigines and Torres Straits Islanders. Just based on our administrative divisions from colonial times, people who live in at least some of the other states identify as Queenslanders, or Western Australians. During boom economic times, when its mining industry is pouring the wealth in, we hear calls by some Western Australians to secede from the Commonwealth of Australia. When the inevitable cyclical decline begins, those voices are quietened.
I find it difficult to understand the separateness that a lot of Queenslanders express. It is even more difficult for me to understand what Europe was after the fall of Rome, and before the rise of the nation state, other than in an intellectual fashion. I know when I teach legal history, it often appears difficult for young students to make that leap to a time before the emergence of parliamentary government, fixed borders, one source of legal authority, and so on. I need someone to help me with the imaginative leap to elsewhere and elsewhen.
One thing – and not the only or the main thing – that Hutchinson does very well, is to demonstrate that history does not have to be the way it is, and the future may not be the way we imagine. Child of my times that I am, we will never be living in the future until we have flying cars, and Elon Musk hasn’t done that yet. Hutchinson shows us a near future where technology continues to develop – there are some very interesting shiny things – but the world is fracturing, not developing into the One World Government of either HG Wells or conspiracy theorists: imagine Brexit on a scale where suburbs, not even suburbs, city blocks or even buildings – secede from a common union, where border walls go up in the oddest of places. Imagine if the disintegration of Yugoslavia knew no bounds. People are still people, spies are still spies, sewer engineers are still vital – it is not a world of cyphers, but of real people doing real jobs (in particular, cooking). Rather than green faced aliens in a world that is just ours but slightly relabelled and rejigged, we have real humans with real lives in a world that is ours gone sideways. Ahh goes my slow brain, this is how it might feel to be part of such a world, and my imagination expands (and I think I am being clever, but I suspect that is a gift from the writer, dragging me along). And then out of those cracks, from between those fractures, something strange and inriguing emerges, drifting out in hints and suspicions at first, until we are confronted with something bizarre that may have been playing with us all along. And then in ‘Europe at Midnight’ things grow odder still, beginning with the tale of a university in armed conflict with itself.
The title above is “Hutchinson’s Europe”, because with all of the world building that goes on here, I think that he deserves it – it is truly a most interesting creation. I loved all the bits: the world building, Les Coreurs des Bois, the major world disaster at first mentioned in passing, the spies, the exciting set pieces, our various heroes, and the impossibilities. Read both books, and save your pennies for ‘Europe in Winter’, whenever it might arrive (soon, please).