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The Hope
James Lovegrove
Victor Gollancz, 229 pages

The Hope
James Lovegrove
James Lovegrove, who also writes as J.M.H. Lovegrove, is an Arthur C. Clarke Award short-listed author. He was born on Christmas Eve, 1965. Despite the rumour and the year and a half he spent in Chicago between 1995 and 1996, he remains inarguably, ineluctably, irretrievably, irrevocably British. He lives in Lewes, East Sussex.

James Lovegrove Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Imagined Slights
SF Site Review: The Foreigners
SF Site Review: The Foreigners
SF Site Review: The Krilov Continuum
SF Site Review: The Hand That Feeds
James Lovegrove Profile

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

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Just by chance, while preparing to write this review, I tuned in on a TV show that included a feature on something called the Freedom Ship: a gigantic ocean liner a mile long and three city blocks wide, where nearly 50,000 people would live and work, cruising endlessly around the world and never touching shore.

The Freedom Ship hasn't been built yet, but its inventor is raising funds, and it seems quite possible it will be. Proof, I suppose, that real life is just as strange as fiction: for this, more or less, is the premise of James Lovegrove's The Hope -- though Lovegrove's ship is much bigger, much more crowded, and much less benign, a metaphor not for the vast sweep of human imagination (however pointless its products may be), but for the worst excesses of human nature.

Built by a philanthropist whose mad dream it was, the Hope journeys across an apparently endless sea, carrying more than a million people in its gargantuan belly. Once, the passengers believed they sailed toward a better life on a distant shore, but so many years have passed without a landfall that this dream has been mostly forgotten, and many of the Hope's denizens no longer remember why they came aboard. Some, born on the ship, have never known another existence. Over time the Hope has corroded, eaten up by rust and salt, and so have the lives of the people on board. Violence and privation are everywhere; safety and compassion are in short supply. Danger lurks even in the sunlit expanses of the upper decks, while down in the perpetually shadow-bound recesses of the lower decks, horrors crowd as thick as oil. All of this has changed the Hope in a way that's more than physical. The Hope, in fact, may be the greatest horror of all -- though the humans that infest the great body of the ship don't yet know it.

Lovegrove embodies this striking premise in a series of linked stories (the book is described by both publisher and author as a novel, but in my opinion this is a stretch; the tales form a larger story arc and feature recurring characters, but taken as a whole they give an impression more of scattered episodes than of a unified narrative) that guide the reader from the ship's exalted top to its degraded bottom, with stops at various points in between. The Hope is a multiple metaphor, the upward progression of its decks mirroring the hierarchies of human society, the vast endeavor of its making and the pointlessness of its voyage representing the destructive excesses of the industrial age. Lovegrove uses this symbolic structure to explore the deepest darknesses of the mind and heart, guided by what seems to be a truly savage conviction of the inevitable devolution of human nature under stress.

Lovegrove's writing is powerful. The episodes exhibit a deft command of pace and detail, and evoke an aura of degradation and decay so dense you can almost feel it on your skin. In concept and conception, though, they're not all equally successful. A few have real visceral impact-- "A Bath of Blood", which chronicles a mother's desperate battle to save her children (and on the Hope, "save" doesn't necessarily mean "preserve"); "No Man's Land", which explores bizarre and terrifying developments in the bowels of the ship; "Perfect Cadence", in which a desperate drug addict flees to the haven of the upper decks and finds unexpected acceptance. Another, "Dr. Macaulay's Casebook", offers an effectively eerie treatment of the question of how the Hope, if it were a great dumb beast, might regard its parasitic human cargo. But others are overly predictable ("Reading Habits", in which a book-hating librarian gets a comeuppance as unsurprising as it is nasty, and "Faith, Hope, Charity", in which a charismatic minister "with auburn hair growing back from his head dramatically, like flames" turns out to be exactly the sort of holy man you'd expect from that description), or don't seem to have much purpose beyond their gruesome treatment of sensational subject matter (was it really necessary to have two tales about troubled but apparently sane people who turn into homicidal maniacs?).

In the end, the relentlessness of the horror starts to seem monotonous -- perhaps because, while the episodes repeat Lovegrove's ship-as-class metaphor, they never really amplify it. Basically, it's a one-note theme: the under-classes on the lower decks constantly starving and preying on each other, the privileged classes on the upper decks drifting in an eternal zombie stupor of self-involvement. In the entire book, only one character looks outward to ask "how" and "why", and eventually he too surrenders to the forces of entropy.

The Hope was first published in 1990 to a good deal of critical acclaim. Against the background of cyberpunk and Thatcherism, it must have seemed both startlingly original (there's no high-tech anything on the Hope, which might as easily be of the past as of the future) and extremely topical. But in 2002, the socio/eco-symbolism has a familiar feel; and there's a whole sub-genre now of writers who transport readers to symbolic, surrealistic fantasy worlds awash in blood and other body fluids. In that context, The Hope must stand on its own merits, and it doesn't, quite. One is left with a sense of a powerful idea incompletely realized -- of decks, and depths, still unexplored.

Copyright © 2002 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.


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