This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
What was next on our list of books for the #SPSFC? The Invisible City by Brian K. Lowe, that’s what.
The moment I started reading this story I was reminded on John Carter of Mars. As the plot progressed, I felt the way I had when reading The Time Machine. Both of these things were certainly by design, and I salute Lowe for such dedication to the atmosphere.
We open on our protagonist, a fascinatingly written bloke named Clee who is in the middle of trench battle in World War 1, stumbling upon an anomaly that flings him into a crazy colourful adventure in space and time. Language throughout the story is really wonderfully used, easily passing for one of those old-school stories. Lowe walks the delicate line of giving our protagonist a readably and relatably modern sensibility, while still acknowledging that a dude who had been a kid in the 19th Century would definitely have some views about race and gender that make us flinch. Clee is unabashedly backwards without being gross, charmingly elemental without being Flash Gordon, and un-horn-tootingly progressive without making me go oh come the fuck on.
Indeed, I can remember only one point in the story where I was taken out of this very deliberate mind-set, and that was a scene where Clee says something about women being more emotionally prone to upset (or something of the sort) and a local character says “what century are you from?” And it wasn’t because of any flaw in the attitudes, rather a purely narrative / worldbuilding issue. I just couldn’t see that particular formulation being used to voice an objection. It was almost more anachronistic than “women be hysterical”. Clee’s statement, in my opinion, ought to have been interpreted more as a culture or species thing, or even a failure of his language ability, than as a statement out of time. But that was one little scene in the whole book, so that’s fine. It just shows how well done the rest was, is my point.
With such an interesting premise and complex, well-imagined setting, the action and overarching revolutionary plot almost seemed surplus to requirements. The under-plot, of the time travellers and their authority centre somewhere in the Twenty-Somethingth Century, even more so. But they added depth to a story that otherwise might only have been enjoyed by weirdos like me, who loved Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and think The Silmarillion is the best Tolkien book (come at me, I fought you about Dune and I’ll fight you again). The evolved animals are brilliant, the breen are great, and there is a fascinating new take on the idea of time travellers being susceptible to new or old viruses and bacteria that I won’t spoil, but it was really clever. The references to the Fifth and Sixth Age are just plain tantalising, slotted in amongst the rest of the deep history and years and dates.
I had a couple of moments where I was thrown by plot developments, or what looked like plot developments, that had already been revealed earlier in the story. Towards the end, the idea of a person without a datasphere presence being a “ghost” was explained in revelatory terms, as was Clee’s astonishment at the transparency-tech of Dure, and yet both of these concepts seemed like they were shown, and explored, quite a bit at the start of the story. If those were establishing instances and the latter mentions were the pay-off, it didn’t quite hit home for me. But overall that was a minor thing.
We were rewarded with a bittersweet ending and a John Carter-esque opening to possible sequels – I know there are more books in the series, but whether they follow Clee or some other facet of the story, I have not checked. I look forward to finding out!
Our boy gets his time-Kirk on with impressive promptness with his Weena-esque sweetheart (but it’s not as creepy as a thing with Weena would have been), then all of the various relationships grow and develop in interesting ways. A little bit of potential pirate-rape but otherwise this is a fairly decorous outing, as one would expect given the style. One crisply-starched and uncomfortably-restrictive old pair of trousers, firmly buckled and belted and yet with a definite bulge, out of a possible pair of acid-washed jeans crumpled on the kitchen floor because when the horny strikes, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of making a bowl of noodles. Anyway what I’m saying is there wasn’t a huge amount of sex but there was some.
Plenty of action and gore here, from the World War 1 weaponry face-shootings to the 900,000 AD monster gougings. Highly enjoyable but not overdone, and not to the point where it was really a defining trait of the story. I’ll award The Invisible City two flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.
We were through the roof on WTF in this story. I’m heartily glad there are more books in the series, because unlike The Time Machine (which did end up getting a sequel, and it was actually great, but really didn’t need one), The Invisible City introduces such a series of worlds, and so much more than “and then the working and leisure classes split into two subspecies” into its near-million-year timescale, that it absolutely demands expansion. From practically the first page, the WTFs are just flying at us. The cultures, the technology, the creatures, all of it. The WTF is relentless. I give it a 2001: A Space Odyssey where the entire movie is just an endless loop of the Jupiter arrival sequence out of a possible just 2001: A Space Odyssey.
My Final Verdict
The Invisible City offers good old fashioned adventure, monster fights and plenty of action. This is one of those cases where I would happily have sat and read a thousand pages of Clee chatting with the Librarian and learning about the world of the 9,000th Century and all the shit that has happened and how it all fits together, though, with no plot or stakes really needed. The fact that there were plot and stakes was a bonus. I’m giving this one a very solid four stars.