According to the publisher's blurbs on the uncorrected proof copy of Kéthani that I'm working from, this book will "catapult this award-winning author into the limelight." They also insist that he's "destined to follow Alastair Reynolds and Peter F. Hamilton into mass-market success." Finally they boast that "Eric Brown is often lauded as the next big thing in science fiction." Now, I really do like Eric Brown's work. Engineman (1994) was an early favorite of mine and more recently I thoroughly enjoyed his New York Nights books, the latter being a series for which the above blurbs would have been entirely appropriate. I have to say, however, that, at least so far as Kéthani is concerned, such claims are distinctly unwarranted. Kéthani is a decent book. It's worth reading, especially if you like Brown's fiction, or if you're particularly interested in the theme of immortality or the venerable trope of aliens coming to Earth bearing gifts. It is not, however, anything particularly groundbreaking. Rather, its affinities are decidedly old fashioned, having more to do with, say, Clarke's Childhood's End, John Christopher's cozy catastrophe novels, or one of those old-fashioned series in which folks swap tales in a bar than it does with anything by such "next big thing" writers as Reynolds, Hamilton, Robson, or Stross.
In actual fact Kéthani is a fix-up, a group of independently published short stories collected together with a new "Prelude," a series of "Interludes," and a "Coda," designed to give the volume some sort of cohesion, narrative thrust, and sense of an ending. The stories originally appeared over the last decade in such venues as Interzone, Spectrum, and the Solaris Book of New SF, and one story, original to this volume, was co-authored with Tony Ballantyne. Although the individual episodes are all worthwhile and the book does progress towards a conclusion of sorts, Kéthani, like most fix-ups, suffers from inevitable problems with repetition and pacing.
Here's the basic premise. At some point in the near future the Kéthani, an alien race, arrive on Earth, their presence made known by hundreds of beautiful towers spread out across the planet which serve as focal points for the gift they've chosen to bestow on humanity. Every human being on the planet, they tell us, is eligible to receive a simple implant—a small, rectangular box on the forehead—which, at the moment of death, pumps the brain and body full of nanos. The dead body can then be collected and brought to the nearest tower where it is beamed to an orbiting spacecraft and, humanity has been told, taken back to the Kéthani home world. There the dead person is brought back to life, re-educated, and returned to Earth six months later. The resurrected are now immortal and have been changed by their experience in a variety of subtle ways. Although some do decide to take up their old lives on Earth again (our chief narrator, an Anglo-Pakistani named Khalid, returns to his job as a physician, for example), not one returnee ever commits a crime and even the most virulent racists become humane. Further, most of the resurrected, sooner or later, leave Earth for jobs in outer space; essentially they become evangelists of various sorts for the Kéthani's brand of immortality.
The entire novel is set in and around the village of Oxenworth in West Yorkshire, England, more specifically at the Fleece, a local pub, and concerns a limited cast of characters who make up the Fleece's Tuesday night regular crowd. Among those regulars are the aforementioned Khalid and his wife Zara, a school teacher; another teacher named Jeff Morrow; and Richard Lincoln, a ferryman, the person who picks up bodies and brings them to the Kéthani tower to be shipped off for resurrection. Brown tells the stories of each of these characters, adding others as the years go by, including a dry wall builder, a French professor, a barmaid, a police officer, a priest, and a novelist. The stories all tend to be variations on a theme. Someone dies and is resurrected, or refuses the Kéthani device (which has been condemned by the Catholic Church), choosing to die permanently, or must undergo a crisis of the soul over whether or not to allow their child to be implanted or, perhaps, decides to commit suicide rather than be implanted. Various characters deal with how immortality or the potential for it has affected their relationships with their partners, parents, or children. The question of the Kéthani's intent, as one would expect in a tale set largely in a pub, is chewed over endlessly. Are they simply good Samaritans or do they have an ulterior motive not yet disclosed? Veteran readers of science fiction will probably find themselves contemplating the endings of any number of earlier SF stories, from the aforementioned Childhood's End to Damon Knight's "To Serve Man."
As the book progresses Brown gradually gives us more and more information. An early question concerning whether or not the resurrected are truly whom they claim to be is answered when Khalid dies and, six months later, returns to the Fleece seemingly unchanged by his experience in any significant way. The mystery of what the Kéthani actually look like and why they never show themselves on Earth is partially explained, though not entirely, I must admit, to my satisfaction, because very little is done with the revelation. Further, we learn that other alien races are working in sometimes violent opposition to the Kéthani, both out there in the galaxy and here on Earth; although, once again, Brown, having revealed this fact, lets it drop without making further use of it.
It should be obvious from the above that I feel some dissatisfaction with Kéthani that goes beyond the limitations imposed upon the book by its nature as a fix-up novel. Part of the problem, I think, is that, although we learn more as time goes on, there is no increase in tension, no sense that the facts discovered in one story will lead to something new or important later in the book. As a result of this lack of any sort of rising action, Brown never really manages to bring off a climax. A great change does occur, as the resurrected increasingly leave the planet for a life among the stars, and Brown's brief Coda, reaching for a Clarkean, or perhaps Stapledonian moment, does show us an all but empty far-future Earth. But it has no kick. No surprise. No transformative frisson. The Kéthani, it seems, were entirely on the up and up, resurrected humanity has indeed left for the stars, and those who were unwilling to become immortal appear to have gone extinct. But, unfortunately, the large-scale, sense of wonder stuff all occurs off stage and I for one finished the book with a feeling of discontent. If it had originally been conceived of as a unified novel and structured as such, Kéthani might indeed have been a latter day Childhood's End, but, alas, this is not the case. What we're left with are individual stories that are worth reading, but that do not, to my mind, form an entirely satisfactory novel.
Michael Levy teaches English at an obscure Wisconsin university and is a past president of both the Science Fiction Research Association and the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.