The map of Europe has been redrawn, and its cartographers remain at work: with the authority of the European Union having receded in the wake of pandemic and economic collapse, the continent now exists as a patchwork of small nations and polities. Everyone wants a piece of the action:
The Continent was alive with Romanov heirs and Habsburg heirs and Grimaldi heirs and Saxe-Coburg Gotha heirs and heirs of families nobody had ever heard of who had been dispossessed sometime back in the fifteenth century, all of them seeking to set up their own pocket nations. They found they had to compete with thousands of microethnic groups who suddenly wanted European homelands as well, and religious groups, and Communists, and Fascists, and U2 fans. (p. 27)
There's an ambivalence evoked here about what these little polities actually mean: they are a way to assert group identity, for sure; but there is also the sense that, if even fans of rock groups are proclaiming nationhood, doing so can be merely a cheap stunt. A similar tension is embedded in the impetus for the novel's plot: for all that people want to carve out their own discrete realms, perhaps the greatest gift in Dave Hutchinson's future Europe is the ability to cross borders.
Rudi is an Estonian cook (chef, he likes to emphasize) working in a Kraków restaurant. A Polish mobster visits one day, in need of someone to head over into neighboring Hindenburg; a Pole couldn't get a visa there, but it would be no trouble for an Estonian; and the job is only to exchange a few codewords with someone—easy, eh? Rudi does the favor, and that seems to be that; but then he's invited to do this kind of thing more often, as a member of Les Coureurs des Bois, a shadowy transnational organization that delivers "mail" which can't go through the usual channels.
From the start, the Coureurs are depicted as being somewhat out of time, if not downright throwbacks:
In Rudi's opinion, whoever had set up the Coureurs had overdosed on late twentieth century espionage fiction. Coureur operational jargon . . . sounded like something from a John le Carré novel . . . Pianists were hackers, tailors provided technical support, cobblers forged documents—Rudi knew that euphemism had been in use in espionage circles as far back as the 1930s. He thought it was ridiculous. (p. 41)
Though the Coureurs may be showily old-fashioned, their organization works; their eagerness to declare to create the image of belonging to old Europe may be seen as an expression of confidence in their own ability to act as a pan-Continental concern. But there are other ways of reaching across borders; take, for example, the striking image of the TransEuropean Rail Route (known simply as "the Line"), which just kept on being built:
So, year by year, the Line crept across the face of Europe, at about the same time that Europe was crumbling around it. The EU dissolved, and the Line went on. The European economy imploded, and the Line went on. The first polities came into being, and the line went on, the Company negotiating transit rights where it passed through the new sovereign territories. It seemed indestructible. (p. 51)
The rhythm of this passage works nicely as a means of evoking the constant forward motion of the Line; and its depiction as something almost with its own agency is effective—and rather accurate, because, on the Line's completion, the TransEurope Rail Company established it as an independent polity.
Rudi has also gained his own way of crossing borders: as a boy, he developed his interest in food through surreptitiously watching foreign cookery programs, and taught himself several languages so he could understand the recipes; being a multilingual chef allowed him to work across Europe. With details such as this and the Line, Hutchinson subtly establishes the key tension which will play out in the main narrative: that there are multiple forces at work, each with the capacity to change the status quo.
The story of Europe in Autumn is that of Rudi's journey into the world of the Coureurs; but this journey is not so straightforward, and Hutchinson takes an interesting approach to its telling. Reflecting the structure of its fragmented Europe—and the notion of a spy network made up of discrete but linked units—the novel is organized as a series of layers. Chapters will often begin seemingly to one side of the main action, with Rudi not always immediately identified; but the text clearly remains a novel rather than a collection of linked stories. So the effect is to push the individual sections of Europe in Autumn slightly out of alignment, which echoes the way that Rudi experiences life working for the Coureurs: he has to push through strata of understanding, fitting together pieces of information about the Coureurs' actions and intentions.
As the novel progresses, Rudi gains more and more command over the narrative: he is the center of our experience throughout, but the sense grows that he is embedding himself deeper in the world; and that the story is now revolving around him, rather than he being the one dancing to another's tune. The tone of all this is striking: even at moments of high drama, even as the stakes rise, there is a quietness to Hutchinson's telling. His focus is so often on Rudi the person, for all that Rudi becomes more than a person. This tone, and the way Hutchinson structures the book, give Europe in Autumn a distinctive feel that's welcome.
It doesn't always work for the best, though: the seeds of the climactic revelation emerge a little too late to work as effectively as they might; and maybe the whole novel is that bit too quiet for its own good. Hutchinson's engagement with form and tone is something that genre science fiction could stand to see more often. Europe in Autumn makes me want to see what else its author has done and will do; but it also makes me wish that the book had banged its own drum a little louder.
David Hebblethwaite was born in the north of England, went to university in the Midlands, and now lives in the south. He has reviewed for various venues, including Vector, The Zone, Fiction Uncovered, and We Love This Book. He blogs at Follow the Thread.
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