Sunday, 8 December 2013

Book Review: The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself

Truth be told, I was disappointed with Ian Sales's sophomore novella, The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself.  It would have had to be pretty amazing to feel like a worthy successor to Ian's BSFA award winning debut Adrift on the Sea of Rains, which I praised effusively on this selfsame blog a while back.  And, as I read it, I found it to be merely very good.  Harsh criticism indeed!

I'd have been fine with writing it off as that, too, for good as Ian is - and he's annoyingly good - you don't get to produce two masterpieces in a row, do you?


Well, my brain keeps going back to it.  Both to the clever, maybe too clever but definitely very clever mystery at its heart - which is in fact the entire story, and then some - and, perhaps more satisfyingly, to the emotional kick that it spends fifty or so pages winding up, so slowly you don't quite see it coming.  I'm a sucker for hidden people-stories, stories that keep their human element close to their chests until you realize that, hey, this isn't just about science (or fantasy, or crime, or...) it's about how human relationships are (or aren't) sustained within the climes of those genres.  My own best effort in that direction was up at Clarkesworld recently, and it's frustrating to admit that The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself probably does a slightly better job of exactly what I was going for there, is in fact a hidden people-story par excellence ... a love story of sorts, and a lovely, mature, perceptive and ultimately brutal one at that. 

That aside, The Eye With Which... does the things that Ian is rightly developing a reputation for, and does them more or less as well as you'd hope.  This is hard, hard science fiction, grounded in the grubby danger and endless minutiae of the real US space program and then extrapolated with wit and verve.  It's excellently written, carefully composed, bold in its use and abuse of the limitations of the novella format, (who else devotes a seventh of their book to a glossary, and then hides half of their plot in it?), and - something which perhaps doesn't get quite enough attention - beautifully put together and presented.

I'm still not convinced that The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself is the equal of its predecessor, but I've also come to the conclusion that it's more than just very good.  Ian is doing something genuinely fascinating with his Apollo Quartet, and I'm intrigued to see how it all works out.

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