We’re reading THE CURVE OF THE EARTH by Simon Morden

16 Apr

Martin McGrath wonders why Samuil Petrovich took his foot off the gas.

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The Curve of the Earth
Simon Morden

Orbit, PPB £8.99

Simon Morden’s Samuil Petrovich series arrived with a bang in 2011. The first three novels were published between April and June, came arrayed in striking geometrically-patterned covers, and won the author the 2012 Philip K Dick Award for the best science fiction novel first published as a paperback. Almost two years later the fourth novel in the sequence, The Curve of the Earth, has arrived and, from the murky brown cover onward, it’s a bit of a disappointment.

The first three novels placed Morden’s improbable protagonist in a post-apocalyptic London, rechristened the Metrozone, facing a variety of threats. Petrovich saved the city from a rogue AI, a barbarian invasion, Japanese, Russian and native gangs and the depredations of an aggressive American government, all while getting various bits of his body hacked off. He also found time to discover a unified theory of everything, invent an anti-gravity device, black hole bombs and build a perpetual motion machine. The great pleasure of these books was the way in which they propelled their readers with a shocking velocity through the plot. There was no time admire the view, there was only one path: forward, full-speed ahead.

This only makes it odder that so much of The Curve of the Earth is so plodding. Opening ten years after the action in the previous novels, this story starts with the disappearance of Petrovich’s adopted daughter, Lucy, while on a scientific expedition in Alaska. There’s much talk of urgency in response to this event, but the opening two-thirds of the novel are full of prevarication and meandering as Morden takes the opportunity of shifting the action to America to indulge in some rather obvious political point-scoring.

Morden sets up a future America that is fundamentalist, secretive, corrupt and morally bankrupt and, using Petrovich as his mouthpiece, proceeds to dismantle it in a string of rants that have even his own characters begging him to stop. Nor is it just that his America is an obviously evil Aunt Sally, it’s that his alternative – the near-utopian Freezone created by Petrovich – is so contradictory. Here is a state that values personal privacy but in which everything is monitored by an almost omniscient AI; a state that reifies personal freedom but in which decisions are made on behalf of all by tiny committees of appointed, unaccountable, experts; and a state where all are supposed to be equal but where Petrovich and his entourage are clearly primus inter pares.

This is a scientist’s state: homogeneous, rational, meritocratic and entirely improbable.

The real problem, though, is not the actual politics, it’s that Morden dwells on it for so long that he gives the reader time to reflect. And, on reflection, it becomes harder to ignore the fact that his Americans are as crudely stereotypical as the Russians and Japanese were in his earlier novels. You notice that his cast of supposedly strong female characters spend all their time mooning about Samuil Petrovich or waiting for him to rescue them. And you notice that Petrovich, despite his supposedly vast intellect and cyborg enhancements, doesn’t actually solve any of the puzzles in this novel but just blusters around until the answers are handed to him.

Morden clearly has big plans for Samuil Petrovich, and I still want to find out where the character is going (a very long way, from the suggestions in this novel), so I hope that in subsequent books the author will return to his strengths and put his foot back on the accelerator.

Read Lavie Tidhar, Tim Maughan and the best new writers in Arc 1.3 Afterparty Overdrive, out now.

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