A Ship is a Dream of Whispers: A Review of Eversion by Alastair Reynolds

A Ship is a Dream of Whispers: A Review of Eversion by Alastair Reynolds

Daniel A. Rabuzzi

Under Review:
Eversion. Alastair Reynolds. Orbit, August 2, 2022.

In Eversion, his twentieth novel, Alastair Reynolds interleaves reflections on selfhood, agency, and the possibilities of narrative within a cracking yarn of nautical adventure and a mysterious edifice. The titular “eversion” refers to both the topological paradox of a sphere being turned inside out without tears or creases and the physical situation of the knowledge-sucking mind-spider lurking at the heart of the edifice. Ingeniously, Reynolds also evokes “eversion” in the novel’s structure, a nested set of fictions that led me far from my initial understanding of what was happening to the protagonists. To say more would be to give spoilers, but I will tell you the reveals are well-timed and powerful, the novel’s conclusion both satisfying and thought-provoking.

Silas, the Demeter’s doctor, narrates the story in a series of first-person episodes. In his first tale, set in the 18th century, the Demeter is a sloop searching for an unmarked fissure in the cliffs along the north Norwegian coast, based on alleged intelligence from the Europa. Within the fissure rears a massive stone construction, provenance unknown, that reportedly contains something of immense value. To organize his own thoughts and to entertain the crew, Silas is writing a fictional account of the voyage: The Stone Vigil, or, The Edifice in Ice; A Romance. The crew begs him for new installments, but his work is criticized mercilessly by the unexplained passenger Milady Ada Cossile, who instructs Silas on the finer points of etymology and pushes him to improve his memory. (“Ada” suggests “Lovelace,” and “Cossile” may echo “cossical,” an obsolete word for “algebraic”). The first episode ends with the discovery of the Europa’s wreckage, questions about the whereabouts of the Europa’s crew, and the doctor’s death at the fissure. This sequence repeats in the mid-19th century along the Patagonian coast, in the 1920s with the Demeter (now a dirigible) descending into an aperture towards the Hollow Earth in Antarctica, then as a space vehicle diving into the ocean of a Jovian moon. In each iteration, the vessels Demeter and Europa recur, along with the crews, though only Ada and eventually Silas recall their earlier incarnations.

In each of the episodes, Silas adopts a voice redolent of the period: something out of Patrick O’Brian in the 18th-century installment, then Victorian diction, then snappy patter from the pulps, and so on. Reynolds compares favorably with Amitav Ghosh, David Mitchell, and A.S. Byatt in his use of time-appropriate registers. Reynolds has always been deft at summoning the spirits of his fellow science fiction and fantasy authors, while using his own ideas and style; as Javier Martinez noted in a 2012 review, “Reynolds engages in rich dialogue with the ‘megatext’ of ideas that comprises the genre.” One of the crew members, a mathematician whose calculations hold the key to the rescue, is named “Dupin”–I love the reference to Poe’s detective. The extraterrestrial being is a Lovecraftian menace. The way the heist tale clips along, suspense and claustrophobic dread mounting, reminds me of Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Hodgson’s The Boats of the “Glen Carrig, Simmons’ The Terror, and the movie Aliens. Above all, the story is a sinister sibling to Rendezvous with Rama, the classic alien encounter novel by one of Reynolds’ chief inspirations, Arthur C. Clarke. 

In Eversion, Reynolds engages with some of the central concerns of science fiction today, and of postmodern fiction generally: the relationship of language to the reality it purports to describe, the reliability of storytelling (especially auto-fiction), the mechanics of forgetting, and identity negotiation. The surface plot – as exciting as it is – is scaffolding, a misdirection away from the real mystery lying beneath. The eversions that most intrigue Reynolds are the paradoxes and uncertainties of authorial identity, agency, and memory, and the choices made, ignored, and/or denied in constructing a narrative. 

Silas begins to have dreams and flashbacks, and exclaims, “A ship is a dream of whispers, the dead man said.” Under increasingly urgent prodding by Cossile, he becomes aware that something is amiss, that the story he seeks to tell is recursive, that he is possibly a fallible narrator: “I felt that I ought to know what my own unconscious will had wrought, but there was nothing.” The fiction-within-the-fiction, the tale he is penning for the amusement of the crew, frustrates him, as does Cossile’s exasperating critique. Bit by bit, Silas learns the truth of the story he thought he was the author of, and of his own identity. As the puzzle resolves, Silas has a life-altering choice to make, with enormous ethical implications for himself and for the society within which he now understands himself to reside.

A narrator at first unaware that he is unreliable and amnesiac, who flails his way through doubt, flawed memories, and misapprehension, and then is finally able to cast aside false consciousness for enlightenment, Silas is a worthy counterpart to the protagonists of Borges’ “The Circular Ruins,” Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, the Westworld series, and the Blade Runner and Matrix movies. Eversion tautly and convincingly brings to life the intricate and often unforeseeable challenges of identity formation, self-authoring, and belief in agency. The novel highlights how fickle and fragile memory can be, and how self-fashioning sits fitfully within—and often resists—sociopolitical structures. Speculative fiction like Eversion is well-suited to explore what Amal El-Mohtar calls “dueling paradigms, uncertain and chancy remembrance — with the past looming both as a resource and as a nightmare, and the future at its mercy.” Eversion is an excellent addition to the science fiction that best explores these themes. Reynolds uses swashbuckling adventure tropes to raise and answer metafictive questions, and to query and expand the goals of thrillers and other genre-oriented adventure tales. Reynolds made his name as a master of the galaxy- and eons-spanning space opera genre; with Eversion, he turns with equal aplomb to the mysteries of inner space and the tricksy confines of the mind.

Daniel A. Rabuzzi has published two novels, five short stories, twenty poems, and many essays. He lived eight years in Norway, Germany and France, and earned degrees in the study of folklore and mythology, and European history. He lives in New York City with his artistic partner & spouse, the woodcarver Deborah A. Mills, and the requisite cat. You can find him on Twitter.

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This review was commissioned from ARB’s monthly calls for review. The author and editors had no prior acquaintance. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.

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