Monday 30 January 2017

Kolymsky Heights

(January 2017)

A surprisingly nostalgic reading experience, this. A ripsnorting thriller praised by a number of authors I like (Philip Pullman, Alastair Reynolds) and which, despite being set in the early 1990’s, has a distinctly Cold War feel that threw me right back into the Tom Clancy novels I ploughed through as a teenager. It’s also utterly ridiculous.

That’s not always a bad thing, y’know? Our hero is Johnny ‘Raven’ Porter, a multilingual, multi-PhD’d superman who’s never spoken to a premenopausal woman he didn’t fuck. The opening is very slow-burn: we don’t even meet Porter until the 10th chapter. Instead we potter around Oxford as a professor receives what turns out to be a series of coded messages from a secret Russian research station, which eventually ends up with him recruiting Raven as a de facto spy in the wilds of British Colombia. The slow burn works as well, once you’ve gotten used to the fact this isn’t a thriller so much as an espionage-procedural. There are very strong similarities throughout with classic ‘competent man’ SF: here’s a technical problem, here’s how a man (and it is always a man) goes about solving it. Lots of detail about how messages are decoded and what they could mean and jumps of narrative viewpoint to satellite tracking stations and whatnot.

Trouble is, this attention to detail on the part of the author and characters also encourages it on the part of the reader, which does rather exacerbate the effect of plot holes and narrative shortcuts and the like. Davidson is just a little too fond of the device wherein character A explains a plan in exhaustive detail to character B, right up until the most dramatic moment, at which point the narrative voice intones “and then he explained what would happen next” and we cut to the plan in action. Not all that subtle, as tension-creating hooks go, really. There’s also the hundred-odd pages Porter spends undercover in Japan, smuggling himself onto a death-trap tramp steamer, getting into fights, and deliberately giving himself hideous tropical diseases in order to get to the town right next to his objective, only to then fly to Murmansk, change identity, and fly back again in the space of a page and a half. This makes no sense whatsoever, and I read the rest of the book waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for some reason, however tenuous, that this massively convoluted and risky insertion plan might have been chosen instead of having him just fly to Murmansk in the first place. Nope. Basically the narrative needs him to run the risk of being recognized later on, however ludicrously manufactured that risk turns out to be.

“Ludicrously manufactured” would be a pretty good tag line for the book as a whole, with the understanding that that’s not necessarily a pejorative. I mean, yes, the female characters are all matrons, or sluts, or ice queens who only need a decent rodgering to get them weeping about love everlasting; there is a fair amount of significance attached to the ethnicities of various Arctic indigenous peoples that I don’t know enough about to comment on authoritatively on but feels rather suspect; and the SFnal macguffin at the heart of Porter’s quest is both paradigm-shattering yet curiously underwhelming; but the journey is amazing and the final act is one of the most vividly imagined chase sequences I’ve ever read. It takes a good long while to get there, and I am slightly at a loss as to why this had quite so much of a revival a couple of years back, but a nearly two-hundred pages of first-rate tension dashed across the wilds of Siberia is value for money, however you reckon it.

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