Context by John Meaney

(2005-12-02)

Published by Pyr
Book 2 of the Nulapeiron Sequence
ISBN 1-59102-335-1
551 Pages

Reviewing middle books in multi-volume sagas can pose several challenges, the least of which is presented when said volume is the only book one has read in the sequence. This specific book, Context by John Meaney is book two of the Nulapeiron Sequence, which began with Paradox. Very often, subsequent books in multi-volume sagas will contain a ‘what came before’ preface in each sequel. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case with Context, the only recap available was the brief summary on the dust jacket. Perhaps the best way to characterize Meaney’s novel is Hard SF/Space Opera. This branch of SF has been flourishing for a few years now, with writers like Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, and Ken MacLeod leading the charge. Of these three, I’ve enjoyed Hamilton’s work the most, while I can’t rank Meaney’s work quite as high as that of Hamilton, his imagination is very impressive.

The novel begins, seemingly where the previous volume left off, with protagonist Tom Corrigan ostensibly left for dead and missing an arm. Many similarities can be drawn between Tom Corrigan and Paul Atreides, the powerful character from Frank Herbert’s Dune. Both men rise to ranks of immense power from rather obscure beginning. However, Tom is not as enigmatic or simply interesting as Paul Atreides. It also seems as if things happen to Tom, at least in Context and he reacts to them. From what I remember of reading Dune, Paul enacted more of the changes and was more proactive than Tom. A more recent book to compare with, in terms of the epic space-opera scope is Peter F. Hamilton’s Fallen Dragon. Both stories follow a hero across space on their respective quests and both stories, and protagonists, have a mythic feel. Hamilton’s character, Lawrence Newton, followed more of a straight path, whereas Meaney’s Corrigan follows a path more wrought with sidetracks. Where Hamilton balanced his novel perfectly between character, scientific postulations, and plot, Meaney focuses more on the science and less on the characters.

Early in the novel, Tom visits with one of the powerful Oracles who populate Meaney’s future world. Whilst meeting with the Oracle, Tom’s companion/love Elva interest inexplicably kills herself. Despite not knowing the specifics of "what came before," this was enough of a hook to pull me into the story and a premise that allowed the remaining narrative of Tom’s story to stand somewhat on its own. I was still in the dark about some of the references to the earlier volume, but the story moved along briskly enough. Brief chapters, often filled with conversations made for a relatively quick read, at least initially. However, Meaney managed to halt t/he narrative flow with interspersed episodes in the life of a character named Ro, one of the first pilots of a new type of starship. These episodes were fairly interesting, but they really hindered the overall flow of the book. I felt no real connection in Ro’s episodes and couldn’t really find a clear connection between her story and Tom’s plight.

The novel doesn’t deal with simply a grand universe, Meaney flavors Tom’s universe with many imaginative, and sometimes confusing, technological postulations. Meaney also splits Tom’s narrative with the story of Ro, the first human Pilot to be born adapted for vision and flight in "mu-space," 1300 years prior to Tom’s time. Parallels can be drawn between Tom’s initial rise to power and Ro’s rise to the level of pilot; however, I felt Meaney’s splitting of the narrative served more to interrupt the flow of both stories rather than enhance each story.

The positives of Meaney’s world are the strange and interesting cultures and technological prognostications. The Nulapeiron world is sprawling and Meaney has wrought an epic, mythical aura to both his characters and the grand stage of the world. His world is painted on a large, epic scale and there are wonders to behold. However, his ability to fully flesh out the characters is not quite up to the world they inhabit and the promise of his imagination. Perhaps if I read the first book in the sequence I would have enjoyed Context more fully. Difficulties with the narrative style and flow, as well as my lack of reading the previous volume precluded me from fully immersing myself in Meaney’s otherwise epic story. In time, I may revisit the first novel in this sequence with the hope that I can gain a better appreciation for Meaney’s style and the Nulapeiron world, because I really did like the epic, mythic feel to the future universe. I suppose readers of the aforementioned Peter F. Hamilton, Ken MacLeod and perhaps even Vernor Vinge’s novels may enjoy Meaney’s Nulapeiron Sequence, starting with Paradox.

© 2005 Rob H. Bedford

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