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Paradox
John Meaney
Bantam UK, 545 pages


Jim Burns
Paradox
John Meaney
John Meaney has a degree in physics and computer science, is a black belt in Shotokan karate and works in IT. He has been reading SF since the age of eight, and his short fiction has appeared in Interzone and in a number of anthologies. His debut novel, To Hold Infinity, was shortlisted for the BSFA Award and subsequently selected as one of the Daily Telegraph's "Books of the Year."

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A review by John Berlyne

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John Meaney has certainly established himself as a distinctive new voice in British science fiction. He received a BSFA nomination for his debut novel, To Hold Infinity (1998) and the buzz has been very positive about his follow-up work, Paradox, which has just received its mass market paperback release in the UK. A third novel, Context, is due later this year.

Certain reviewers have likened Meaney's work to some of the old masters -- I have seen Jack Vance's name bandied about in more than one critique -- and there is little doubt as to the type of fiction Meaney draws upon for inspiration. This is very much science fiction in grand tradition.

Paradox is set on Nulapeiron -- a world long-colonized by humanity and one where society is stratified, both physically and politically. In the lower subterranean levels, life is hard despite the vast (and superbly imagined) organic technologies that shape this world. Young Tom Corcorigan is minding his own business when a complete stranger hands him an odd talisman. The next day, Tom sees the very same stranger hunted down and brutally killed by the local militia. Seeing her distinctive obsidian black eyes as she dies, he realizes she must be a pilot -- previously thought to exist only in folklore and legend.

Not too long after this, Tom's mother is whisked off by an "Oracle" (whom the cover blurb describes as "supra-human beings whose ability to truecast maintains the status quo") who tells Tom's father that he will be dead within a matter of days. This prediction naturally proves true and the orphaned Tom is left homeless and alone. He is sent down a level or two where he is enrolled at a school and shows some intellectual promise. Unfortunately he becomes involved with the wrong crowd and in a rather brutal display of despotic justice, he has an arm amputated for a crime he didn't commit.

If all this sounds a little contrived thus far, well, that's pretty much how it is. Initially I thought Tom would turn out to be a far more exciting character than transpires, but rather than exploring the pent-up rage and deep desire for vengeance that he should feel having been robbed of both his parents and his physical wholeness by an unforgiving ruling class, Meaney presents his protagonist often as little more than a foil who has a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tom's subsequent rise up through the social ranks to the very top of the pile (which the majority of the remaining plot covers) seems to have more to do with coincidence than design. He is both the luckiest and most hapless character I have read about in a long time --   passive, lacking ambition and bouncing around the story like a pinball, driven from the outside rather than within and -- a purely subjective judgement, I stress -- I found him therefore rather dull.

With not much of an character engine driving his plot forward, Meaney works hard to compensate, filling Paradox with complex philosophies, strange technologies, frustrated and unrequited passions, betrayals, disasters and lots of other events and intrigues. Indeed, I would not presume to find fault in some of his quite often remarkable and ingenious inventions, but my overall impression remains that, without a strong and clear central character to bind everything together, Paradox is something of a flawed piece. Occasionally too, Meaney lost me in a whirl of technobabble  -- witness this quite mind-bending paragraph which makes no more sense to me when taken in context ...

"Epigenetic history. Individual cytoskeletons analysed: microtubules, filaments, transmembrane receptors. Extra-cellular matrix, labelled and deconstructed. At the level of the whole: a history from the small hollow sphere of the blastula, through gastrulation, then the formation of the notochord, at which point external intervention began."
There are other things in Paradox which I found disconcerting, such as the often erratic time management, sometimes spending three or four chapters on describing a couple of days in Tom's life and then having two or three years pass in a paragraph. Or the seeming arbitrary inclusion in the novel of martial arts and its various philosophies (perhaps not so arbitrary when you learn that the author is a black belt in Shotokan karate). To be fair though, there is also much to admire in this novel,  not the least of which is how Meaney has filled the story to the brim with clever concepts that serve to let the novel earn its title. For me though, the paradox comes in being able to recognize the huge talent of this writer and being able to admire his work, but at the same time not necessarily being able to enjoy it.

Copyright © 2001 John Berlyne

John Berlyne is a book junkie with a serious habit. He is the long time UK editor of Sfrevu.com and is widely acknowledged to be the leading expert on the works of Tim Powers. John's extensive Powers Bibliography "Secret Histories" will be published in April 2009 by PS Publishing. When not consuming genre fiction, John owns and runs North Star Delicatessen, a gourmet food outlet in Chorlton, Manchester.


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