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The Recollection by Gareth L. Powell2 stars

[This review contains spoilers.]

Buy from IndieBoundDamn. I was really rooting for this one. I mean it, I was. In America at least, the science fiction shelves are still too bereft of actual SF. While the urban fantasy glut slowed at the end of the 2000s, that slack was largely taken up by steampunk, leaving SF still the minority genre in its own bookstore aisles. The place to go for SF in the early 2010s was the UK, where the New Space Opera has a solid footing, led by its best known practitioners, Pete Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds. But many of its other leading names — Neal Asher, Gary Gibson — have yet to get a real toehold here. So my desire to see the whole movement succeed is strong. By having distribution on both sides of the pond, Solaris Books has been well positioned to bring some of the best UK talent to our attention.

Despite all this, I still have to be honest about my assessment of any book’s merits. The Recollection is Gareth Powell’s second novel and first to make it to our shores. There is much in it to warm the cockles of any space opera devotee. Powell is unapologetically, refreshingly old school in indulging in the genre’s most well-worn tropes. We’ve all seen crowded spaceports with grungy bars, amoral rogue pilots, ineffable alien weirdos, and shipboard computers with snarky personalities that piss and moan about the wear and tear to their engines whenever they’re told to make the jump into hyperspace. There was something about Powell’s loving handling of the material that made me realize how much I missed all that stuff. It was like sliding into a comfortable old pair of slippers. On this basis alone I will keep reading the man.

Unfortunately in The Recollection, he makes unwise storytelling choices at key moments that result in what Alfred Hitchcock called “fridge logic,” referring to that moment, after the movie’s over and you’re getting a snack from the fridge, that it occurs to you what you’ve just seen had a high bullshit quotient. Except in The Recollection, I didn’t always have to make it all the way to the fridge.

All around the world, mysterious alien portals leading to other worlds have begun appearing at random, leading to the expected disruptions. Ed Rico is a failed London artist who travels into one of these in search of his brother, Verne, who has unwittingly been sucked into one immediately following an argument over the little matter of Ed’s cuckolding Verne with Verne’s wife, Alice. Some guys might turn this into a victory of sorts — it would be easy to burn a highly successful brother who chastises you for being a slacker and loser who always has to be bailed out of his own failures by saying “Maybe so, but at least I’m shagging your wife” — but Ed is basically a decent guy wracked with guilt and remorse. So with Alice in tow, they begin a search into the unknown. 

The route leads them through numerous hazards, after which they arrive in a distant future offworld colony called Tiers Cross. This merges their storyline with that of space pilot Katherine Abdulov, the black sheep of a wealthy interstellar trading family, disowned after an ill-advised partnership and romance with dashing renegade Victor Luciano. Kat is offered a path back into her family’s good graces by accepting a mission to beat Luciano to the planet Djatt, where he intends to usurp the Abdulov’s near-monopoly on a priceless narcotic unique to that world. On the way, she has to drop a couple of passengers off at the Dho Ark, a vast alien station whose creators, the mysterious Dho, are harboring terrible knowledge about the fate of inhabited space. A menace they call the Recollection, a vast, unstoppable cloud of distributed nanoparticles that swarm over entire worlds, grey-gooing everything into oblivion, is approaching. The Dho have produced a weapon that might work, but only one man is capable of using it. 

Conceptually, the Recollection is comparable to Jack McDevitt’s Omega clouds, coupled with Robert Charles Wilson’s Hypotheticals from his Spin trilogy. I didn’t mind the similarities, but I did mind some of the things Powell was asking me to swallow regarding the Dho. For one thing, I have a hard time buying the notion of an alien race unspeakably advanced beyond all human imagination, except for one specific weakness a human must fulfill, and this weakness pertains to something the aliens themselves created. In other words, “We built this weapon but we can’t use it” doesn't pass the suspension-of-disbelief filters. For it to have done so, the reason given for why one specific human (hell, I’ll just say it, it’s Loser Ed) can use the weapon would have to be a feat of narrative genius. And what we get simply does not convince. If anything, it plays like a contrivance to allow Powell to stage Ed’s climactic heroism as an act of atonement for past sins. I must say, if being a complusive gambler who bonks your sister-in-law requires nothing less than saving all life in the universe from destruction as atonement, I’d hate to think what Ed would have had to do had he, say, cheated on his taxes or murdered someone.

That said, I more or less liked everyone, and Powell certainly knows his way around action and scenes of devastation and spectacle. But other niggling flaws can't be avoided. Victor Luciano makes a whiplash-inducing 180° shift from arch-villain (committing what amount to capital crimes in his race against Katherine to Djatt) to good guy, with Kat forgiving him far too quickly, and it becomes apparent that this is to make a third-act reveal about Victor more palatable to readers. 

And I could never get over what senseless bastards the Dho were. If they built the arch network to help lead humanity to safety, why couldn’t the arches have led straight to the safe haven, instead of channeling travelers through myriad dangerous worlds, some inhabited by ferocious predators? The Dho also give Kat a pendant — yes, a pendant — to protect her against the Recollection, which they later describe as no less than “a tsunami of unspeakable horror, and it will swamp your defenses and drown your souls. It cannot be defeated, appeased, or bargained with, and it will scour all the life from your planets.” But... it can be held off with a pendant? If this is possible, why did the Dho wait years after Kat’s departure for Djatt before telling everyone else about the Recollection? And why didn’t they ask her simply to transport millions of these pendants to Djatt (even if they only work temporarily, they’re better than nothing) while they perfected their superweapon? Any species that lives in an 1100 kilometer-long space station made of diamonds could have easily afforded her fee.