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Down to a Sunless Sea by David Graham (1981) 319 p.

Elevator pitch: you’re flying a commercial airliner between America and Europe when a nuclear war breaks out. What the hell do you do?

For all its flaws – and they are many – Down to a Sunless Sea is a great execution of an intriguing concept. At any given time (pre-pandemic, of course) there are about a million people in the air, aboard hundreds of thousands of different flights. I’ve always found something enchanting about a large passenger jet in mid-flight, especially at night: a tiny little bubble of a few hundred people, in a sort of limbo zone, with modern flight being so safe and routine that it doesn’t even really feel like you’re in a vehicle; more like you have to sit in a chair for a few hours while being teleported to another city. But after those few hours are up you return to solid ground and the real world, and disperse. Down to a Sunless Sea, narrated from the perspective of pilot Jonah Scott (Shackleton would’ve been a better name) fully appreciates this same feeling, while also putting you in the shoes of a pilot and dispelling any notion that blasting across the Atlantic in a gigantic jumbo jet is anything other than a miracle of science. Scott finds himself lucky enough to be departing JFK Airport en route to London Heathrow just as a limited nuclear war breaks out in the Middle East – a war which very quickly escalates. A routine flight suddenly becomes a frantic race against time and fuel and wind speed and longitude as Scott and his crew try to locate somewhere, anywhere, safe enough to put the plane down.

This little private world of mine had not changed; Delta Tango still hissed eastwards at 39,000 feet through a starry night, and the vast crowd of passengers would be mostly asleep, dreaming of new lives, new places. How many had hoped to go to London? How many were bereaved? The five big engines still burned their tons of fuel each hour, blasting astern the microscopic debris of combustion, water, hydrocarbons. The glowing green panorama of instruments told a tale of normality.

Down to a Sunless Sea (an ominously perfect title, as the nuclear ash cloud builds overhead and Scott is ever-aware of what the outcome will be if he fails to find safe harbour) can clearly be split into three acts, and has a bit of a rocky start, since the plane doesn’t even take off until 100 pages in. The first act is a dubious showcase of Graham’s odd decision to set his story in a fictional near-future world in which America has suffered a peak oil crisis and near-total economic collapse; Scott and his flight attendant friend-with-benefits Kate travel into a Manhattan that’s more like Mogadishu, all so that they can… stay at an absent friend’s apartment? Even though doing so clearly puts their lives at risks, and doesn’t result in any more creature comforts than they have back home in England? It felt to me like Graham’s decision to speculate on American economic collapse was a post-war British writer smugly fantasising about a world in which American material comforts had proved unsustainable, the collapse of their social order a kind of just deserts, and the creation of a world in which American refugees desperately want to move to Britain. It’s weird, and unnecessary, and even within the narrative universe it makes no sense whatsoever for Scott and Kate to risk travelling into Manhattan; Graham only does it because he wants to explore this world (which doesn’t make a lick of sense in the first place to anybody with the slightest understanding of economics) and introduce a couple of new characters they smuggle onto the plane, who then don’t do much of anything anyway. Overall the first act is a puzzling waste of time, and annoying to boot, given Graham’s habit of making Scott narrate like a 1930s gumshoe. He would have been better served by simply setting the story in the regular 1980s, when Moscow and Washington were on a hair trigger with each other anyway, and getting to the actual plot sooner.

Fortunately the novel improves in the second act, after the plane departs New York, and the first news of the nuclear war starts to trickle into the cockpit. Graham was an RAF pilot in World War II and served as a flying instructor; I don’t think he was ever a commercial pilot, but he does a damn good job of putting you inside the head of one. Even before anything untoward happens, the takeoff procedure inside the cockpit at JFK is a perfectly written pages-long reminder that while you or I might be flipping through a paperback or watching a movie, the air crew are still about to lift several hundred tonnes of metal into the sky, riding a controlled burn of thousands of litres of fuel, and are solely responsible for the lives of three or four hundred people. Most accidents, as Scott reminds us, happen on takeoff or landing, and no decent pilot is ever entirely at ease during those moments. Even before the war breaks out, Graham makes sure we appreciate the heavy responsibility of the moment you hit the thrusters and haul several hundred souls into the sky.

That in turn is obviously very important, as this becomes the first flight of Scott’s life in which the takeoff and landing aren’t the most nailbiting part. The rest of the second act is a perfect exercise in thriller writing. No visible sign of the war is witnessed at first by the air crew; instead they learn of the horror taking place via the SELCAL, the cockpit radio, and sealed instructions for this eventuality. (“As of now, you may act independently to take whatever action you may consider necessary to achieve the survival of crew and passengers. Preservation of the aircraft is totally irrelevant.”) A sense of surreal disbelief and shock creeps in as Scott’s plane continues cheerfully cruising through the night, their own vista unchanged, while they scramble through the charts looking for an alternate destination and the chaotic scene on the ground is relayed to them by other airborne flights and ATC operators as far afield as Gander and Madeira:

“This is Funchal, 514. We will help all we can, but situation critical. We have taken forty-three aircraft unscheduled, eleven others inbound. Airfield congested. We are taxiing aircraft into sea to make room. We have no food or accommodation. State of emergency declared by local military commander. Our orders are to accept no more aircraft. Over.”

John Rogers coined the term “competence porn” for a genre of fiction in which the reader observes smart, experienced characters solve problems. Down to a Sunless Sea is very much that, and it’s in Scott’s conversations with (and explicit admiration for) the air traffic controllers that makes it clear Graham was a pilot who was well aware that flying is not a solo job; Scott is dependent on the expertise and assistance of his co-pilot and engineer, and on dozens of people on the ground. And competence porn, I think, is most interesting when the professionals involved are responsible for the safety of others; when their competency is saving the lives of us regular joes. Most of us are competent at something, but not something particularly important. Scott’s competence goes hand in hand with his sense of duty and responsibility, most clearly expressed when his engineer, understandably, offers the opinion that maybe they should just go nose down into the sea and give everybody aboard a mercifully quick death. Scott won’t hear of it; it’s not his decision to make. As a pilot and a captain, his passengers entrusted him with their lives, and he intends to do everything in his power to keep them safe.

Does the third act live up to the second act? Not quite. Is this book saturated with cringey sexism that feels more like the 1950s than the 1980s? Absolutely. Are the non-American and non-British characters portrayed as risible caricatures? You bet. Are the smaller details of this brief war that Graham boils up in his red-blooded Tory brain absolutely laughable? More than you could possibly believe, the standout of which is Cuban soldiers landing in Cork to help retake Northern Ireland.

But do any of those things detract in any major way from the book? I don’t think so. Once the shit hits the fan, Down to a Sunless Sea is a gripping experience, an excellent execution of a unique apocalyptic premise, and a damn good potboiler. Ironically, it would be a great book to read on a plane.

Lines in the Sand by A.A. Gill (2017) 295 p.

It feels odd to call this the “final” collection of A.A. Gill pieces, since he wrote a lot of stuff in his life and his estate and publishers will doubtless be putting out various bundles for years to come, but this is a collection of some of the columns he wrote in the years before his sudden death of pancreatic cancer, aged 62, in December 2016; an untimely passing and quite genuinely society’s loss.

Gill was disliked in a lot of left-wing circles because he was a rich toff who often said witty but offensive things, went on gourmet travel expeditions and hunting safaris, married Amber Rudd and once shot a baboon. Nobody who has actually read any of the man’s writing or opinions could dismiss him on such second-hand impressions. The enemy of the people that exists in the mind of Guardian commenters would not have dedicated a huge amount of his journalism in the 2010s to the plight of refugees, which makes up the first third of Lines in the Sand. In a confronting series of pieces he travels from from the vast UNHCR camps in Jordan…

This isn’t a salvation, it’s not a new start, it’s not a lucky escape when a man, a widow, a family, a village are forced to make the choice to become refugees. It is an unconditional surrender, not just of the house you live in or your profession, but of your security, community, your web of friendships, your dignity, your respect, your history and your future – not just yours, your children’s future. The middle-aged man is never going to get his grocery shop back; the mechanic is never going to return to servicing Mercedes… A refugee camp is a community with everything good and hopeful and comforting about community taken out. There is precious little peace, no belonging, no civic pride.

…to the Rohingyas exiled from Burma into Bangladesh…

Not only is this the worst, it is the least known and reported pogrom in the world today. Compared to all the other degrading and murderous bullying on Earth, this has one startling and contrary ingredient: the Rohingya are Muslim, the Burmese are Buddhist. The gravest, cruellest state-sponsored persecution of any people anywhere is being practised by pacifist Buddhists on jihadi-mad, sharia-loving Muslims. It doesn’t really fit in with the received wisdom of how the world works. The Burmese say the Rohingyas are dogs, filth, less than human, that they are too ugly to be Burmese, that they are a stain, a racial insult, and that, anyway, they are Bengali – illegally imported coolie immigrants, colonial flotsam.

…to the huge numbers of Syrians and Iraqis who fled into eastern Europe in the early 2010s:

The truth of this exodus is that those who steeple their fingers and shake their heads and claim to have clear and sensible, firm but fair, arm’s-length solutions to all of this have not met a refugee. It is only possible to put up the no-vacancy sign if you don’t see who’s knocking at the door. For most of us it’s simple. We couldn’t stand face-to-face with our neighbours and say: “I feel no obligation to help.” None of you would sit opposite a stricken, bereft, lonely, 22-year-old gay man and say: “Sorry, son, you’re on your own.” Or not take in a young poet and his delicate Juliet and their awkward, gooseberry friend. The one thing the refugees and the Europeans agree on is that Europe is a place of freedom, fairness and safety. It turns out that one of us is mistaken and the other is lying.

The remainder of the book is a collection of Gill’s typically perceptive and peripatetic pieces on any number of subjects, ranging from parenting to Rudyard Kipling to the humble joy of train travel. But as a politically-minded person I found his insights on politics by far the most interesting. On the Scottish independence referendum of 2014:

I should come clean and declare that if I had a vote, I would vote for independence in a heartbeat, and if Scots take what is theirs I’ll be the first in the queue for a passport. But like all expats I do not have a vote, and our view looking back is more tweedy and heathery and smells more of shortbread than that of people who have to live there. I do know that making a nation is more than just your pension and your water rates, your fear about a currency and whether or not you’ll be able to get the BBC. A country isn’t just for life, it’s for all the lives to come, and the final lesson from history is not actually Scots, but from just over the way.

Ireland had a far more fraught and aggressive struggle for independence. They did not have oil and they don’t even have a fishing fleet, they’ve got second-rate whiskey and tweed and, finally, they gained a grudging and penurious independence without the EU, with a currency that was tied to the pound, and they immediately fell into a vicious civil war and then a depression. The new Eire had precious little goodwill from London or the continent. The Republic will be 100 years old in eight years, and if they had a referendum and were asked “Look, you’ve had a century of this, wouldn’t you rather come back and be part of the UK again?” do you imagine there would be a single vote for yes? Because whatever happens, it is always better to be yourself.

To Brexit:

We all know what “getting our country back” means. It’s snorting a line of the most pernicious and debilitating Little English drug, nostalgia. The warm, crumbly, honey-coloured, collective “yesterday” with its fond belief that everything was better back then, that Britain (England, really) is a worse place now than it was at some foggy point in the past where we achieved peak Blighty. It’s the knowledge that the best of us have been and gone, that nothing we can build will be as lovely as a National Trust Georgian country house, no art will be as good as a Turner, no poem as wonderful as If, no writer a touch on Shakespeare or Dickens, nothing will grow as lovely as a cottage garden, no hero greater than Nelson, no politician better than Churchill, no view more throat-catching than the White Cliffs and that we will never manufacture anything as great as a Rolls-Royce or Flying Scotsman again.

The dream of Brexit isn’t that we might be able to make a brighter, new, energetic tomorrow, it’s a desire to shuffle back to a regret-curdled inward-looking yesterday. In the Brexit fantasy, the best we can hope for is to kick out all the work-all-hours foreigners and become caretakers to our own past in this self-congratulatory island of moaning and pomposity.

To an appraisal of the people attending a Trump “University” convention in 2009:

Their battered faces didn’t smile a lot. They were weather-proofed for disappointment. They were the Americans we never see in Europe, the ones who don’t travel. They are the children and grandchildren of immigrants for whom the American dream reneged and passed over to others. What none of us knew was that seven years later there would be a collective name for all these people: Trump voters.

The millions of Americans who now vote for Trump are an unpalatable, embarrassing and inexplicable mystery to the Americans who wouldn’t consider voting for him, as they are to everyone watching from the bleachers of the rest of the world. But they were and are the natural consequence of a society that lauds and mythologises winners. The non-winners don’t just go away to be good, acquiescent losers; they get furious and bitter, and they blame the rules and the establishment referee, and they want comeuppance, someone to blame, and they attach themselves to the biggest, flashiest, self-proclaimed carnival-headed winner out there.

And then, finally, to his sudden diagnosis of cancer in 2016, and his final weeks in the NHS:

We know it’s the best of us. The National Health Service is the best of us. You can’t walk into an NHS hospital and be a racist. That condition is cured instantly. But it’s almost impossible to walk into a private hospital and not fleetingly feel that you are one: a plush waiting room with entitled and bad-tempered health tourists.

You can’t be sexist on the NHS, nor patronising, and the care and the humour, the togetherness ranged against the teetering, chronic system by both the caring and the careworn is the Blitz, “back against the wall,” stern and sentimental best of us — and so we tell lies about it.

We say it’s the envy of the world. It isn’t. We say there’s nothing else like it. There is. We say it’s the best in the West. It’s not. We think it’s the cheapest. It isn’t. Either that or we think it’s the most expensive — it’s not that, either. You will live longer in France and Germany, get treated faster and more comfortably in Scandinavia, and everything costs more in America.

Why is our reaction to cancer so medieval, so wrapped in fortune-cookie runes and votive memory shards, like the teeth and metatarsals of dead saints? Cancer is frightening. One in two of us will get it. It has dark memories, unmentionably euphemised. In the public eye, not all cancers are equal. There is little sympathy for lung cancer. It’s mostly men, mostly old men, mostly working-class old men and mostly smokers. There is a lot more money and public sympathy for the cancers that affect women and the young. Why wouldn’t there be?

“How do men react when you tell them their cancers are fatal?” I ask Dr Lewanski.

“Always the same way — with stoicism.”

“Bollocks,” I think. “I thought that was just me.”

Gill’s writing – perhaps minus the emotionally draining catalogue of human misery that makes up the refugee pieces at the beginning of Lines in the Sand – has always made me happy, in some ineffable way. It makes me want to view the world with different eyes. He may have been privileged and wealthy, but he’s someone you instinctively feel would have lived a full and rewarding life regardless of his station in it; a man who enjoyed both the finer things and the simpler pleasures; a writer able to pen a column with astute articulations of a major political issue or with an ode to the pleasure of seaside fish and chips, and devote equal panache and vitality to both. 62 is unacceptably young, but if I’m unfortunate enough to depart this world that early, I hope I’ll be able to look back and say I valued it as much as A.A. Gill did.

Beyond the Aquila Rift by Alastair Reynolds (2016) 779 p.

This was a rare one for me – an impulse purchase from a bookstore shelf! Well, not really an impulse purchase, since Reynolds is an author I like a lot and this brick-sized collection of the highlights of his short fiction promised to be a good read. I was also pleased that even though I’ve read quite a bit of his short fiction, I’d only read four of the eighteen stories within: Great Wall of Mars, Weather and The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice, which I think were all published in Galactic North, plus the 100-page novella Diamond Dogs.

Other than those four, standouts included:

Beyond the Aquila Rift, about a cargo crew who make a lightspeed jump and find themselves drastically off course, the main character stuck in a remote space station outpost with his two crewmates trapped in malfunctioning cryo pods, but reunited with an old flame who also happens to be stuck out the back of beyond with him. This is a really, really good sci-fi story that builds up a great sense of tension as the protagonist begins to suspect something is being hidden from him, and the twist at the end is fantastic. It bears mentioning that along with the more mediocre story Zima Blue, this was adapted as one of the flagship episodes of the Netflix anthology series Love, Death + Robots. I went ahead and watched this one purely on the strength of this story, and it’s not bad, but I do think it made one critical mistake, which I’ll try to express without spoilering: while the TV show captures the horror and revulsion of the final twist, it doesn’t capture the more complicated idea that behind that base-level revulsion is actually benevolence, rather than malevolence – which, I think, is a much more interesting ending. Anyway, this is a brilliant short story and there’s a reason it lends its name to the title of the book.

Minla’s Flowers is about a wandering starfarer, perhaps not dissimilar to the shatterlings of House of Suns, whose damaged ship alights upon a forgotten planet where two different societies are engaged in a perpetual war with each other. As he goes in and out of cryo-sleep, the starfarer attempts to limit his engagement with their more primitive development while also trying to protect them from an upcoming disaster, and the story is ultimately about his inability to remain truly neutral.

Fury follows the robotic servant and bodyguard of a galactic emperor who is no longer remotely human, travelling across worlds to unravel the conspiracy against a failed assassination attempt on his master, and in doing so uncovering the secrets of his own history and the emperor’s dark past.

Thousandth Night is set in the same universe, and indeed with the same protagonists, as House of Suns; and since House of Suns is one of the best things Reynolds ever wrote and one of the best sci-fi novels of the past twenty years, this story is just as great.

Those are the standouts, but most of the stories in here are pretty good – and in fact I skipped over the ones I’d already read but still found myself skim reading huge chunks of Diamond Dogs because that one’s a classic. Reynolds is a potboiler sci-fi writer of the highest order: his stories are always good, always engaging, always page-turning, while also being generally smart and well-written. He’s probably not about to win the Booker any time soon, but it’s criminal he’s never won a Hugo or Nebula. His works are solidly reliable reading, and I strongly recommend this collection to anybody who enjoys sci-fi.

Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson (2014) 264 p.

Europe at Midnight takes place a few decades in the future, its central science fiction conceit being that Europe has begun to balkanise: regressing into the kind of kleinstaaterei that defined the continent in the 18th century. The EU has mostly disintegrated and the spirit of Schengen is long gone; tiny new states are appearing every other week, sometimes falling apart again soon afterwards, based around long-suppressed nationalism or petty economic reasons, all of it kicked off in the first place by economic stagnation and – this is very amusing to read in 2021 – the nation-states of Europe throwing their borders shut to each other during a respiratory pandemic that originated in China. If only. (As an Australian who used to live in London and still has plenty of European acquaintances on Facebook and Instagram, it’s been morbidly fascinating to watch how many of them think nothing in the world is more important than their summer trip to the Med).

The novel explores this concept through the Coureurs, a secret network of couriers who ferry packages – information, goods, sometimes people – across Europe’s myriad new borders. Rudi, a young Estonian chef working in Poland, is recruited into the network at the beginning of the novel simply because he has a useful passport, and begins to learn the tradecraft that goes along with being a clandestine black market courier: the codewords, the dead-drops, the fake identities, et cetera. Hutchinson rather turns his nose up at the espionage cliches, and has Rudi compare things pejoratively to a Deighton novel, which I thought was a bit rich for an author who is, in the end, just writing a Deighton novel.

I make this comparison because I read my first Deighton novel recently, and Hutchinson’s writing rather reminded me of his: perfectly readable without ever becoming truly engrossing. There are some decently put together set-pieces, some semi-interesting situations… but it’s a thriller that never really thrills, a book which never compelled me to pick it up if I had anything else to be reading or even anything more interesting on my phone during the morning commute. Part of this, I think, is because of the lack of any clear stakes. Rudi transfers packages from place to place and has his run-ins with various security services and organised crime groups and various other anonymous people, but the nature of his work means we don’t know what any of it really amounts to, and we end up just watching a lot of tradecraft play out and various spies talking frankly to each other about how they’ve already rumbled each other, and then they nod respectfully at each other’s professionalism, and we rinse and repeat for next chapter. Again, this is not a very good way to run a plot when you spent the first fifty pages making meta-jokes about thriller cliches.

We do eventually get a hint of what’s happening in the final fifty pages, when the book abruptly jack-knifes into a different genre entirely. (And, unless I’m mistaken, involves Rudi murdering a cop’s lover or at least his colleague in order to somehow gain his confidence, and that… works…?) Since the blurb (which I hadn’t read) sort of gives it away, I may as well too: it involves what you might call magical realism or fantasy. I’m not against this in principle; in fact, done well, I think it mirrors what it would probably be like in real life if horrifying monsters or aliens from outer space or wizards from another dimension suddenly intruded on the predictable rhythms of your quotidian world, even if you are a secret courier. And I wouldn’t say Hutchinson handles it badly, either. It’s just that I wasn’t invested enough in the world or the story to care, at that point, and I have no desire to see how he develops that plotline in the sequels. Europe in Autumn isn’t a bad book. Not at all. It’s just forgettable – the sort of novel built around an interesting idea which might have made for a solid short story or novella, but lacks some ineffable but important ingredient that would have held my attention for an entire novel.

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June 2021