John Meaney's first short story appeared in Interzone in 1992. Meaney was then at the tail end of a squad of new or revitalised writers entering SF, including amongst others Stephen Baxter, Eric Brown, Greg Egan, Nicola Griffiths, Kim Newman, and Brian Stableford. There were so many that some could appear and go relatively unnoticed, like Keith Brookes, Eugene Byrne, Charles Stross, and ... John Meaney.
Many of them, like Ian R. MacLeod and Paul MacAuley, also sold to markets other than Interzone but became associated with the British magazine because of the regularity of their contributions. Conversely, others, such as Griffiths, sold an early short or two and quickly started writing novels. Nonetheless, there was a phalanx of writers who established themselves as a new New Wave, unbeholden to the New Worlds of Moorcock, Ballard, and Platt, nor to the Wessex-ian landscapes of late 1970s as typified by Richard Cowper. Like Charlie Stross, who spent over a decade breaking through—but who, within a year of making two appearances in Gardner Dozois's Eighteenth Year's Best SF, had started to sell to Asimov's with the Accelerando stories—Meaney never really made the front rank of that first wave of new British talent.
Maybe it was because Meaney sold only to Interzone until 2003, possibly restricting his readership, while writers like Baxter and Egan both moved across to Asimov's (at least for the major part of their canon) as soon as was decently possible.
Another factor may be the comparative scarcity of Meaney's output. Baxter produces at least one novel a year, and crucially, typically also produces around ten to a dozen short stories. This has the effect of keeping him visible to the core readers of magazine SF, and gaining him new readers as subscribers dip in and out of magazine readership. In contrast, by 1995, Meaney's initial burst of sales had passed, and since then he has published only a dozen short stories in over a decade. Add to this relative lack of visibility, the fact that his four novels have taken eight years to appear, and that Meaney's reputation is nowhere near as large as it should be for his wealth of talent is explained.
First published in 1998, To Hold Infinity falls in the middle of the twin chronologies of the later Nulapeiron sequence. It seems to me that Meaney has—almost from the start of his career—been building an overarching future history like Baxter's Xeelee sequence and Niven's Tales of Known Space.
In Meaney's case, it is the pilots who navigate the mu-space universe who provide his fictional universe's glue. They first appeared in a 1994 Interzone short story, "Parallax Transform," and have since re-appeared in all of his novels. As is often the case, they sit on the periphery of the society (rather than in it) on the planet Fulgar, where To Hold Infinity opens.
At first sight Fulgari society is close to Utopian, but as the novel progresses, more and more strata and splinter groups are revealed. Terrans are at the bottom of the hierarchy, barely above ordinary Fulgari. Keeping the peace against the political groups who wish to slow or even halt the terraforming process are the proctors. At the summit of society are the intellectual and political elite of the planet, the Luculenti, upgraded post-humans capable of a multi-layered existence, simultaneously conversing vocally with humans and by sign-language with each other, and using Skein, the local 25th-century internet, to buy and sell companies or to engage in multimedia conversations with text and pictures.
A young entrepreneur called Sunadomari Tetsuo has achieved entry to the Luculenti. Such an achievement is unparalleled, and from the start it is clear that the achievement has not been without cost. Tetsuo has a history of petty theft, and To Hold Infinity opens with Tetsuo fleeing for his life.
At the same time, back on Earth his mother, Toshio, is burying her husband. She decides to go and visit her son, unaware that he has sent a message asking her to stay away. When she arrives and discovers him missing, she notifies the authorities, who discover a corpse in the grounds of his home. Before long he is wanted for murder. To Hold Infinity is an open mystery; the identity of the villain is clear to the reader from the start. What is unclear is his motivation.
Someone once observed that first novels are identifiable less for structural flaws (many first novels don't have that many of them) than because of the sheer enthusiasm and inventiveness of the writer compared to later works. A Locus reviewer once observed of Ursula K. Le Guin that "her later works haven't got better; she simply makes fewer mistakes."
To Hold Infinity has plenty of both enthusiasm and mistakes. The enthusiasm is shown by the haikus at the beginning of each chapter, multi-directional blocks of text a la Joe Haldeman's "DX" in the narrative, and a sense of love of world building in the description of Fulgar. This is a much more vividly drawn world than the subterranean hierarchical world of Nulapeiron, although the society seems at least as complex as that of the trilogy.
But the pacing is decidedly uneven. While To Hold Infinity is moderately interesting during its first half, it only really moves up through the gears at the halfway mark, during the Luculenti party, when Toshio swears revenge on the serial killer who—in striking again—finally breaks cover.
Part of the slow start is attributable to Meaney's insistence on using a trick borrowed from novels such as Pohl's Gateway, using numerous blocks of text distinct from the main narrative to represent Skein communiqués. It proves essential eventually, but does slow the reader's initial immersion in Meaney's world. But with its typographical tricks to show the workings of minds more complex than ours, its open mystery and pursuit of its clearly delineated villain, and the densely textured society of its Luculenti, To Hold Infinity reminded me of one novel above all others, and at the end Meaney's story felt less derivative than a tribute to Alfred Bester's 1953 novel The Demolished Man. If there were to be such things as soul-fathers, then John Meaney's would be Alfred Bester.
With the completion of the Nulapeiron sequence and the re-issue of To Hold Infinity in the same year, and a new novel, Bone Song, scheduled for 2007, Meaney's career may be finally about to take off. It's long overdue.
Colin Harvey is the author of the novels Vengeance and Lightning Days as well as the prize-winning story "The Bloodhound." His novel The Silk Palace will be published by Swimming Kangaroo Books in September 2007; read about it here.