Author: Eric Brown
Publisher: Solaris (re-release: Original publication, Pan Macmillan 1994)
Note: The paperback copy of Engineman that we received also included eight short stories set in the same fictional universe. A separate review will follow that deals with them, this review covers the novel itself exclusively.
Set primarily in the strangled Paris of the future, as well as the blood-soaked world of Hennessy’s Reach, the novel deals primarily with the titular Enginemen, pilots of starships who once ‘pushed’ vessels through another realm named the Nada-Continuum. With the emergence of the interfaces, technology that allows instantaneous transport between worlds, the Enginemen have become obsolete as starships are decommissioned, left listless and craving the communion that came from the Nada-Continuum, an experience known as the Flux. Ralph Mirren is one of these Enginemen, who is drawn into a plan to restore the Lines that were decommissioned and solve a problem that threatens the existence of the afterlife itself.
Elements of Brown’s other works are visible in the flavour of his writing and the scope of his universe. The limitless possibility of his setting evokes the same sense of otherwordly adventure from Helix, the personal focus and the fixation on the ramifications of a changing world echo those of Kethani, while Ralph Mirren has more than a little Jeff Vaughan in his makeup. Themes of corporate malfeasance are overt, and more subtly perhaps, the novel explores the the decline of primary industry in the wake of technological and social advancement, leaving the crumbling ruins of former strongholds as a testament to their abolition.
There are points in Engineman, a highly imaginative novel by any standard, where you feel as if you’re reading one of the old greats. There are moments when conception interweaves with execution to create its very own Flux, a perfect marriage of characterisation, narrative flow, literary sinew and muscular personalisation. Heinlein, for one, springs to mind a few times when you’re reading Brown. It’s a shame, though, that the pace isn’t consistently maintained throughout Engineman. The book would be far more effective, for instance, were the Ella Hunter subplot to have any real relevance to the story whatsoever. Her background is crucial, and it makes for a few tearjerking scenes, but she seems to be there mostly as a punching bag or worse, a purely expository mechanism. You can’t shake the feeling that she could have been included in a far leaner sense. If she had any major role to play rather than a supporting one, the disproportionate amount of time spent on her part of the story would be justified. Instead, however, that does not seem to be the case.
Other problems also become apparent toward the end, where the plot is rushed into wrapping up. Everything is tied up with a neat bow, but that in itself eviscerates the novel. All throughout, we’re constantly reminded of the dystopian nature of the universe and its corporate antagonists, of their monolithic power, but that doesn’t turn out to be all too much of a problem when it doesn’t facilitate the story. Likewise, while we’re not keen on spoiling the ending as such, it’s a hard pill to swallow if you equate it to what would, in all likelihood, actually happen when a civilisation is forced to change its way of life.
Brown’s writing is at its most effective when he captures the emotive journeys of his characters. The book’s dalliance with action and fast-paced adventure jars with it, because not nearly enough time is taken to explore that avenue thoroughly and make it an integral part of the narrative. We did enjoy this book, and we would wholly recommend it, but it feels incomplete. In many ways it mirrors the Engineman at the core of its story and the subject of its title – wandering, forlorn, grasping at brilliance but always searching for the missing part to make itself whole.