Monday, May 21, 2007

Unnatural History by Jonathan Green

Welcome to the Pax Britannia series, set in the latest of Abaddon Books' original shared worlds. It is 1997, and Victoria (kept alive by advanced technology) is about to celebrate her 160th year on the throne; the British Empire still spans the globe; and Magna Britannia remains the 'Workshop of the World'. Jonathan Green co-created Pax Britannia, and Unnatural History is the first novel to be set in the world; so it's natural to expect this book to set the tone of the series.

The world presented within is, however, annoyingly inconsistent. In some ways, it's clearly meant to echo our own (there are mentions of anti-social behaviour and an Anti-Terror Bill, for example); but in others, it could never have been the same world (there are surviving pockets of dinosaurs and early humans). The technology can be more advanced than ours (robot policemen, space colonies) or stuck in the 19th century (factories are still the same). Sometimes this is charming (I love the idea of mobile phones made of teak and brass), but equally it sometimes just doesn't make sense (given a hundred extra years, would the Victorians really not have learned to exploit any more energy sources than coal?). Green's extended Victorian Age feels more like a grab-bag of ideas that sounded interesting than a properly thought-out setting.

One could also be forgiven for thinking that the upper echelons of London society are all that's real in this world. Green comments early on that 'the more shameful aspects of Imperial life had continued to deteriorate' – there's still great poverty, infant mortality, disease, and so on. Wait, though, there's more: 'Great swathes of the British Isles were now nothing but blighted wasteland'. The author mentions these in a few paragraphs, but that's all; the rest of the country might as well be a utopia, for all it matters in the book. Surely these problems deserve addressing in more detail? (And if people think the situation is so bad, why aren't they trying to do something about it? After all, the real 19th century wasn't short of social reformers.) I was also left wondering about the history of this fictional 20th century: there's brief mention of other countries; but I just don't get the impression (however wrong I may be) of a coherent history.

Okay, so we don't think too hard about the setting; doesn't mean the book will be bad, and indeed it's not. Our hero is dashing government agent Ulysses Quicksilver, sent to investigate a crime committed at the Natural History Museum. Throw in a mysterious 'de-evolution' formula, a comely young maiden, and a dastardly plot to overthrow the existing order, and you have all the ingredients of a romp.

And a romp is what we get. It's all jolly good fun. Yes, I suppose the plot is pretty easy to figure out; and sure, the characters are painted in broad strokes rather than fine detail (I know that's the point in a romp, but it's always nice to have three-dimensional characters). But Unnatural History is saved by Green's talent for writing atmosphere and action. There are some wonderful scenes (Quicksilver's discovery of a bomb factory in the abandoned Underground springs immediately to mind) that make the book a compelling read.

Shared worlds tend to work better with the more freedom authors have, so we'll have to wait and see how Pax Britannia develops (though, having read the preview in the back of this volume, I'm optimistic). But they all have to start somewhere, and Unnatural History is a good start. No, it's not everything it could be: I'd like to know more about how this world works and where it came from. It also strikes me that there's a real horror at the heart of the setting, the horror of this period of profound change being reducing to something static and stagnant; Green refers briefly to 'a decaying, outdated system maintained for much longer than was healthy' (and of course the title may be considered a pun, as the alternate 1997 is itself a product of 'unnatural history'), but I wish there had been a greater sense of this horror in the texture of the novel. Still, Unnatural History is an effective romp, and there's no harm in that.

Unnatural History by Jonathan Green. Paperback, 336 pp, £6.99. Published by Abaddon Books and available in all good bookshops.

This review first appeared in Whispers of Wickedness.

Further links:
Abaddon Books

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