Tobias Buckell has made me very happy indeed. I can’t decide whether I prefer Arctic Rising to Hurricane Fever, and I really liked Hurricane Fever (seriously, read my review). It’s rare that I have the pleasure of reading a fast paced high-tension thriller set in a brilliantly developed near-future, let alone reading two of them back to back. Buckell’s world-building is a tremendous draw for me. It’s quality shines through in the ease with which he introduces the near-future to the reader; he keeps his obvious enthusiasm for the world he’s created tightly leashed, only revealing it in dribs and drabs, more often than not as an in-character rumination or observation that feels entirely appropriate. Better yet, I didn’t find any gaping implausibilities. I’ll admit that I didn’t take a fine-toothed comb to the books and their established background, but they hold together well enough to offer a compelling (and somewhat distressing) view of an imminent future. If you want to treat yourself to a jaunt down “doesn’t this seem likely…” lane, and you want some hair-raising hijinks in the bargain, try either of these books. If you don’t want to be spoiled for either book before you read it, be sure to read Arctic Rising first, though I did it in the opposite order and still enjoyed myself immensely.
Why did I enjoy it so much? Well…
Buckell continues to impress me for a number of reasons. Not least of which is that he consistently chooses minority figures for his narrators (i.e. minorities in the continental US, which I’d guess is his standard market), and then makes them both believable and relatable. I’ve discussed Hurricane Fever’s protagonist in my other review, and Arctic Rising has Anika Duncan, a black airship pilot (and a lesbian). I’m all for having underrepresented groups given a leading role in adventure stories; these stories are a genre that I grew up on, I love sharing them with others, and I was really sad when I realized that almost none of them had any space for many of the friends I’ve made. When protagonists who aren’t straight, white, and male are a noticeable and blatant exception, your genre is going to be pretty damn limited in its appeal to others who aren’t also straight, white, and male. It is terrible knowing that my friends will feel excluded when I try to share something that I love with them, and I’m glad to see authors like Buckell *ahem* bucking that historical bias.
But that wouldn’t matter very much if Buckell wrote unpalatable trash. Fortunately, while I would hesitate to label his work “high literature,” Buckell definitely has a good thing going here. He knows how to write a high-stakes thriller, and he clearly has expertise outside of the realm of world creation. Fast paced action sequences, conspiracy, murder… when it comes to solid action plot-hooks, Buckell has it covered. And once he’s got the action moving, the book barely gives you breathing room. Buckell keeps the action flowing from once scene to the next, with perhaps the briefest of interludes to offer you a glimpse at the characters and what is yet to come before they’re pushed into yet another desperate situation. I suspect that if I were to read nothing but Buckell books I might grow numb due to the relentless pacing, but as a fiction-dessert of sorts I’ve found them very nearly perfect.
I referred to Hurricane Fever as the best Bond movie I’ve read in years, and I think the similarity comes through with this one as well, though not quite as strongly. And unlike Stross‘ Jennifer Morgue, neither of these books is a send-up of the genre in addition to being an homage. Whether that’s a good thing I’ll leave up to you, but these homages are very well done indeed. Actually, thinking about Stross reminds me of another similarity: both Buckell and Stross do meticulous construction of near-future settings, but they appear to go about it quite differently. I can’t say that I prefer one way to the other, but by comparison Stross seems to start with a very low level premise based on what is usually technological change (and closer to the present than Buckell’s setting) and then builds out from there, while Buckell takes a much wider view of a series of global dynamics and works inwards to the particulars. Now, I may have that entirely wrong. For all I know, Buckell woke up one morning and said “You know what I want? Airships shot down while monitoring Arctic shipping.” But it seems to me that his setting grew out of a wide angle view of the many and varied environmental (and resulting political & economic) changes we’re faced with in the coming decades. I’m certainly happy he came up with it. I find it deeply fascinating.
And on that note, I’ll leave the rest up to you. If any of that sounded interesting, give Arctic Rising a try. It does a very good job of delivering excellent action, leavened by conspiracy and intrigue, and does it all in a highly believable world only a few decades away from ours, all while offering meaningfully nonstandard heroes. Check it out.