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The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters (2012) 213 p.

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The asteroid Maia is on a collision course with Earth, and there’s nothing we can do about it except sit and wait to die in about six months. Society is starting to come apart a little, but is still mostly civilised – lots of people are killing themselves, lots of people are walking away from their jobs and families to go do whatever it is they’ve always wanted to do, but most people are just carrying on as usual out of sheer inertia. Or possibly because they’re already doing what they’ve always wanted to do, like our protagonist Henry Palace: police patrolman in the New Hampshire capital Concord, recently made a detective because half their CID team has, as they put it, gone Bucket List. Palace is called to a suicide by hanging in a McDonald’s bathroom, and soon becomes convinced that it isn’t a suicide at all but a murder.

I would exactly call this a sci-fi book, but certainly the sci-fi aspect looms large over it and I wouldn’t have picked it up if it were just a detective novel. The Last Policeman is a mystery novel with literary aspirations (you know – it’s just a prose style thing) and the incoming asteroid creating a pre-apocalyptic society is basically a study in how people react and how society would change if we knew there wasn’t much time to go. We all know we’re going to die one day, of course, but it’s depressing to know exactly when, and even more depressing to know that nobody’s going to be carrying on after you. The question Palace is trying to answer is why somebody would commit a murder at a time like this – but the other question hanging over the book is why he should care, why anybody should care?

Winters answers that question well enough. Despite its introspective first person narration, The Last Policeman certainly works as a detective novel, zipping along quickly with plenty of twists and turns and cliffhangers. There come points where Palace figures something out which he doesn’t share with the reader, but that’s towards the climax and you aren’t kept hanging for too long anyway, so that’s fine. There was, though, an aspect which reminded me another detective-novel-as-literature I’ve read – the acclaimed writer Peter Temple’s novel The Broken Shore, in which I suspected the protagonist would never solve the case and would simply be left haunted by lingering suspicions and a sense of unresolved injustice, but in which Temple eventually went back on track with the traditional detective story confrontation and conclusion anyway. In the case of The Last Policeman, there came I point where I was fairly certain that Palace’s case was going to turn out to be a suicide after all, and that his dogged determination and persistent gut feeling that it was actually a murder was his own way of dealing with the impending doom: a way of pretending to be what he’d always wanted to be, a proper homicide detective on a proper case. This turned out to be wrong, which is a shame, because I think it would have made for a more thematically consistent and overall better novel.

Which isn’t to say that it isn’t a good book. Palace is a likeable enough protagonist, a well-meaning dweeb who grew up to be a cop, learning the criminal code off by heart and thinking that ecstasy is spelt with a capital E. There are some good character beats, and there’s one particularly good moment, when Palace finally tells the reader the fate of his absent parents – a bit within that story which is mentioned almost off-handedly but, in a really affecting way, immediately enhances the admiration we feel for a fellow detective who has mostly been a stock character up to that point. There’s an interesting story thread involving Palace’s sister which is left only half-resolved, and which would have annoyed me except that I know there’s two more books which take place closer to the asteroid impact. A quick, easy and decent read, and I’ll definitely be reading the rest of the series.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015) 600 p.

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It’s odd that Tchaikovsky picked the title Children of Time, since this refers to the less interesting of his novel’s two storylines: a relatively generic sci-fi yarn about a sleeper ship called the Gilgamesh which, through various trials and tribulations across the millenia, sees its crew going in and out of cryo-sleep as they try to find a new home for themselves, possibly the last remnants of the human race sent out thousands of years ago from a dying earth. The other story thread concerns what takes place on the first planet the Gilgamesh encounters: a terraformed world established by their own long-dead ancestors, in which a tailored virus was designed to uplift the local monkeys so that they’d evolve into something human-like in mere millenia, rather than millions of years. The problem is that something went wrong with the project, and the virus uplifted a different kind of animal entirely.

Anybody who hears about this book will probably also learn which animal, and it’s not like it isn’t revealed quite early, but I still won’t spoil it here. It’s an appealing elevator pitch for a science fiction doorstopper, and certainly the more compelling of the two storylines. Not that the story of the Gilgamesh is unentertaining – and in fact Tchaikovsky has a real skill for stringing out tension and ending chapters on cliffhangers – but the characters are rather flat, and towards the end it starts to become a bit of a colour-by-numbers generation starship story, with nothing we haven’t seen before and certain scenes and concepts Tchaikovsky seems to be including out of obligation. Like most sci-fi writers he also has an enthusiasm for expository dialogue and summary rather than scene – not an issue so much for the god’s-eye view storyline back on the planet, covering many thousands of generations of a developing intelligent society, but a bit of a drag when dealing with the same three or four characters arguing aboard the Gilgamesh.

Overall, though, this book is really good stuff. It’s 600 pages long and I burned through it in about four days. Good, readable, creative sci-fi that would make for a great airplane book.

Troubles by J.G. Farrell (1970) 446 p.

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Across the turbulent years of the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), Troubles – the first of J.G. Farrell’s loosely connected “Empire” trilogy – follows the upper-class British residents of The Majestic, a seaside hotel in County Wexford. The Majestic has, to put it bluntly, seen better days; Farrell paints a marvellous portrait of crumbling decay, the hotel’s three hundred rooms mostly empty and mildewing, the swimming pool stagnant, the main courtyard overgrown. There’s a touch of Gormenghast to the place, and Farrell is such a talented writer that even though the symbolism is present in every scene it never feels overwrought. The Majestic clearly represents the last disintegrating years of the British Empire itself, the green-eyed orange cats overrunning the upper floors represent the newly ascendant Sinn Fein, and the stiff-upper-lip old Tory who owns the place obstinately refusing to acknowledge the obvious truth that it’s falling down around his ears… well, that represents something still quite relevant to those of us well-versed in British politics in 2019. Particularly the way in which he eventually embarks on a sort of Apocalypse Now descent into madness.

Troubles is regularly interspersed with extracts from newspapers – real ones, I assume – discussing the situation not just in Ireland but in other far-flung parts of the Empire like India and Egypt. There is a familiar tone to these extracts: a delusional steady-hand-on-the-tiller attitude, a refusal to acknowledge that other nations and peoples might have interests and desires which differ from England’s, and a ridiculously unfounded optimism that borders on deranged. A century later, little has changed. Troubles is a brilliant skewering of the Tory mindset and a perfect book to read in October 2019, as the British slouch towards either a no-deal Brexit or yet another extension of their Indefinite Leave to Remain.

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