Author: Gareth L. Powell
Title: The Recollection
The Recollection is a standalone SF novel, or, more precisely, a space opera, covering several hundred years and a bunch of dramatic conflicts, from very old and lethal to very new and quite intimate. It’s the second novel by Gareth L. Powell, so don’t be misled by the publishing date – the 2021 is a 10th anniversary edition. As a sophomore effort, it’s not bad: full of interesting, well-explored ideas, but bogged down by choppy execution, less than three-dimensional characters, and a very rushed ending.
We start with two timelines: now (more or less the now from 10 years ago, with war in Somalia and not that great British economy [actually, when you think about it, neither changed much in the last decade…]) and 400 years in the future. The protagonists of the contemporary timeline are Ed and Alice, and any description of the pair will inevitably sound like soap opera. Sigh. Let’s try this, nonetheless. Ed and Alice had been lovers, but their ties go deeper: Alice’s husband is Ed’s brother Verne (you see?) who having learned about Ed’s and Alice affair escapes in anger to another dimension. Because, coincidentally, while Verne was learning about his brother’s and wife’s betrayal, weird interdimensional arches started to pop up all over the Earth. Verne is one of the first to go through, somewhat willingly, but Ed’s and Alice’s shared guilt makes them unable to let him go. They chase after him, using a different arch – and only after they get through, they learn that it’s actually not that simple. Duh.
The future timeline introduces Katherine Abdulov, a starship captain caught between the rock and the hard place and willing to risk a lot to get back on top of things. Some soap-operatic past decisions haunt her still, and getting back to the stars and her ship, and back in the good graces of her family, are her top priorities. She gets her chance pretty quickly, and with the added benefit of an opportunity to get revenge on her former lover Victor, Kat doesn’t think twice before she makes the decision. After all, racing to a remote desert planet to bid on a one-in-a-hundred years crop of spice sounds like a great fun! What can go wrong? Fortunately for her, her ship Ammeline seems much more level-headed.
These two timelines ultimately merge into one, resolving the conflicts big and small on a suitably big scale, but the ending remains the weakest part of the novel, rushing through the events with robotic exactness and not much feeling involved in ticking all the requisite boxes – in stark contrast with the beginning parts, where it was all about emotions and psychological motivations and an enjoyable bit of oddity in crafting unusual SF protagonists. Not sure what happened there at the end – was the author asked to cut the novel back a bit? Or had he simply run out of time? Either way, the initial promise and especially the more fleshed-out middle parts are much better than the finale.
Powell doesn’t even pretend to create something unique in The Recollection. His novel is a coming of age story of sorts, with multiple characters going on their respective journeys of self-awareness and self-realization. The soap opera setting gives the characters the motivation needed to embark on the perilous journey and serves well as the initial impact, but Powell sadly doesn’t venture far beyond it: despite their journeys the characters remain mostly unchanged, and character development is very minimal; what there is, is told and now shown. On the other hand, however, the SF part of the novel is quite interesting, particularly due to the aforementioned arches and the technical ideas involved in the creation of their metro-like net: every journey through the arch is instantaneous for the traveler, but for the world around them it lasts for ten years, and the distance between the places joined by the arches is measured on galactic scale. This way, Ed and Alice’s guilt-fueled journey turns into a modern Odyssey of sorts, as it sees the characters venture further and further from their own time and place, seemingly without return.
While the characters leave something to be desired, the setting is all right. It uses many old SF tropes in an effective way, creating a believable reality populated with refugees, travelers lost in time, obsessed scientists and ruthless traders. There is an ancient alien race, Dho, looking like a cross between a European stag beetle and Marvel’s Hela and possessing sources of energy beyond human comprehension. There is an all-consuming, lethal threat devouring its way into this part of the galaxy. We have a race with time, personal conflicts and sacrifices, harrowing travel, time-jumps, singularities, and a well-known bogeyman of Western SF – really, what else do you need?
The Dho and their diamond-covered Arc are intriguing but remain undeveloped, and their mysteriousness unfortunately remains their main characteristic. There are hints interspersed through the novel with regards to their relationship with the main evil, the titular Recollection, as well as the counterbalancing force of the Gnarl, but they all sadly come to nothing. And if you’ve read Neal Asher’s Agent Cormac series or Alastair Reynold’s Galactic North story (available in his collection Galactic North), you’ve already encountered a much better rendering of the main antagonist, who/which for some reason has been given human psychological characteristics here. Yeah, you don’t have to even read anything, really – just call it the Borg 😉.
If The Recollection were given a more breathing space, allowing the author to explore the ideas touched upon in it a bit more, it could have been an intriguing contemplation of randomness vs purposefulness of the universe and humanity, of guilt and anger as factors driving many human decisions into surprising resolutions. I’d really like to read that book. There are tantalizing kernels of drama and thoughtfulness in the current version – but that’s all they are. The Recollection as it is now remains just an entertaining, undemanding read – an example of an author finding his writing legs, and ultimately a well-measured dose of light SF that doesn’t entail reading lengthy series or doorstoppers, but manages to create some interesting imagery and rehash some old tropes in an enjoyable, unostentatious way.
I have received a copy of this book from the publisher Tor/Forge through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.