After Atlas (review)

There’s little doubt that Emma Newman’s After Atlas will be topping many "best of" lists in the coming year. Sometimes, when you’re reading a book, you just know. And yeah, this is one of those. It’ll be talked about.

Just how one knows this is an open question – but one thing I keep wondering about is whether it’s in the genre.

I haven’t seen this much mentioned in the reviews, but the book this most reminds me of is Peter F. Hamilton’s Mindstar Rising, published nearly 25 years earlier. I’ve read Mindstar Rising at least three times. I’ll certainly read it again. Everyone has books they keep coming back to, and that’s one of mine – and that’s partly because I haven’t really read much else that’s like it. It’s in a niche of its own, but not one that’s easily described. It’s one stitched together out of elements of other genres – so many that you don’t quite feel comfortable asserting it’s a coherent identity. But after reading After Atlas I’m getting convinced it is.

There’s no way to go about it but to list the "search terms," so here they are: dystopia, England, murder mystery, supercop, global warming, near-future, financial collapse, capitalism, European Union, AI, psychic.

So you see the problem. There’s no coming up with a genre title for that. And yet, it appears to be a thing.

Like in Mindstar Rising, the narrator is a kind of blank-ish Michael Knight figure – some kind of altered-through-mind-manipulation supercop. And yet for being essentially a superman, his social status is incongruously low. He’s emotionally restrained and extremely professional. He travels in upperclass circles but as an outsider – not exactly a servant, but definitely some kind of instrument. The archetype is obvious: James Bond. But it’s a science fiction James Bond, and one stripped of the glamor – one that’s more British and less cinematic than the mould.

Like in Minstar Rising, our story is driven by a straightforward case. The narrator protagonist is hired/ordered to solve a mystery involving murder, theft and corporate intrigue. The case ends up being more politically relevant than it intially seemed, but this comes as no surprise to the reader. Half of the interest in the book is, after all, in the worldbuilding, and it would seem like a waste to create a world like this and say nothing about it.

The world, in both cases, is a much harder, dystopian near-future version of our own. It’s a kind of an exaggerated nightmare of anxieties we have now, but not so exaggerated that it’s easy to write off. In both cases, technological advancement plus financial collapse plus environmental degradation – of the specifically global warming variety – have sunk the quality of life noticeably for most people, even as the world as a whole is much wealthier. And in both cases, our protagonist is aware of these problems and laments them, but is generally too busy to worry much about setting them straight. He’s adapted to the world out of necessity; there is no mention of going back.

Both books have a deep suspicion of power, and both books conflate government and corporate power. But neither seems particularly libertarian for it. Mindstar Rising‘s politics are ambiguous, but After Atlas‘ are not: this is a kind of paean to Social Democracy. There again it’s distinctly British: nothing was ever the same after Labour lost that fateful election in 1979, was it? There’s no going back, it’s not clear that we’d want to go back if we could, and yet we smell a rat: we’re not convinced it (the Postwar Settlement) couldn’t have been made to work out if vested interests weren’t aligned against the experiement.

These are conflicted, complicated feelings, and yet in both books they come out in a world that feels alien, and wrong, and unalterable. Something important was lost. If we could say what, maybe we could fix it – but we can’t, not exactly.

Both books feature a banal but strangely unsettling villain who comes out of nowhere in the third act, but who also ends up being less important than his appearance would seem. A misdirection in villainy, if you will. The real villains turn out to be faceless, and the villain we encounter is just an aspirant, albeit an effective one.

So our methodical, professional detective does what he does, and he eventually solves the case, but he can’t fix the world. The ending is inconclusive – cautiously hopeful given the circumstances, but the circumstances are bleak. In After Atlas this is particularly so: the book ends with a punch to the gut that’s horrific, and that you simply don’t see coming, but which somehow fails to shock all the same. Everything in the world – in both books – is strangely muted.

Our detective in each case is not exactly psychic. The enhanced powers each detective has are more like empathy, but enhanced to such a degree (with outright genetic manipulation in Mendel’s case; mental training in Moreno’s) that it can seem psychic to observers.

The world in each case is not exactly futuristic. Mindstar Rising takes it a little bit further, of course, with Evans’ stored personality, but that aside, there’s nothing presented in either book that doesn’t seem 30-years plausible. In both cases, the technological worldbuilding aims less at speculation about the future than at creating a sense of the uncanny. This is our world but not – a kind of uneasy, offputting extrapolation of where our world might be headed.

Probably the part of both books that appeals to me, though, is that same je ne sais quoi that I like so much about Space: 1999. It’s difficult to articulate, but there’s a distinct attitude toward technology. Technology doesn’t change man, exactly, but it does put him in situations he wouldn’t be in otherwise, and it’s just possible that it puts him in situations he’s not ready to handle – may never even be ready to handle. Both books show (brief) scenes of subsistence farming and cut to scenes of opulent wealth. The world as a whole is richer and more advanced than it’s ever been, but either control over this wealth is more in the hands of oligarchs than ever before, or else it was always thus and technology just makes the divide more visible, obvious. Again, this seems like a British sentiment. Britain conquered the world but lost something essential in the process and somehow failed to take the next step into the society of the future – perhaps because that step is not takeable. These books (and, in its way, Space: 1999) are about that – about an uncanny sense that technology should have changed us more than it did.

I really enjoyed After Atlas. It’s well-written, disciplined. Its characters are well-sketched. Most critics will try to sell you on the notion that what they liked about the book was its politics. I liked it because it evokes a distinct feeling that I like but am always at pains to describe, and that I see rarely, but that I do see in multiple writers. This isn’t exactly an update of Mindstar Rising, but it is perhaps in conversation with it in ways that have yet to be widely appreciated. We fans of the original do appreciate it, though. Well done.

Overall Rating A

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