Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Beautiful Land by Alan Averill

Look, there's just one thing I really have to say about this book, so I'll say it up front. Remember Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe? Big literary splash, praise from a whole bunch of respectable people, aura of smartness emanating from it? Came out a couple of years ago? Had no plot at all and was just a single metaphor as all-enveloping and useful as kudzu?

Well, How to Live sucked. [1] But The Beautiful Land is almost exactly the book that all of those respectable people pretended that How to Live was. So if you thought you wanted to read How to Live -- a smart time-travel book, SF with some literary heft and a good story, too -- but then got suckered into staring into Charles Yu's navel for over two hundred pages, then I want you to know that The Beautiful Land is the book you really want to read.

It's not quite a time-travel novel, true -- it's about alternate universes rather than the past. But it uses a SFnal device to make metaphors concrete -- while at the same time (and unlike Yu's book) keeping track of the fact that its SFnal devices are actual devices that work and have controls and exist in a real world with more than a tiny handful of self-obsessed people (unlike Yu). It's about one young man, and how he ran away into a SFnal device rather than deal with his real life.

But The Beautiful Land is also about the girl that young man ran away from, and that opens up The Beautiful Land from being the claustrophobic hall of mirrors that How to Live was -- The Beautiful Land is about real people who were damaged by horrible experiences in the real world, not just a boy who's afraid his daddy doesn't love him enough. And the stakes in Beautiful Land are higher as well: there's an entity from the worst dreams of Greg Egan or Charles Stross that wants to clean up all the world that have those noisy, messy, complicated living things on them.

Takashiro O'Leary was the Bear Grylls of Japan -- more or less -- but he's washed up, broke, and suicidal in a lousy NYC hotel as Beautiful Land opens, for all that he isn't even twenty-five yet. He's that old SFnal type, the man who needs a frontier to explore, a boundary to breach, a new land to do his best not to die in. And the Axon Corporation -- the usual shadowy consortium of interests, organized around one semi-mad genius -- has a device that finds new lands, and they need a fearless explorer to check out those new lands and report back on which ones are ripe for exploitation.

Samira Moheb was never Tak's girlfriend, though that probably would have happened eventually -- if he hadn't run off to explore jungles and do his TV show in Japan, and she hadn't enlisted as a translator and spent three tours of duty in Iraq, watching people get killed around her in sudden horrible ways. Now, four years after Tak supposedly committed suicide, she's a mess, a barely functional stew of post-traumatic stress and obsessive-compulsive behaviors.

The last thing she expects is for Tak to show back up in her life, toting a briefcase that can take them both to alternate dimensions and a crazy story about that half-mad genius, Charles Yates, and how Tak's really spent the last four years exploring alternate worlds for Yates and Axon. Even if she could believe that -- that Axon plans to shift our real world, the central one, into a pattern where they already own everything and run the world -- Tak's story about Yates is even less coherent: that he's double-crossing Axon, as part of a plan to live forever in a perfect world, the Beautiful Land.

And what will make that land so perfect is that it can contain nothing that is not Charles Yates.

Beautiful Land charges forward from there, with Tak and Samira -- two people broken in their own ways, who have to try to survive and save whatever worlds they can save or create -- and with Judith Halford, Yates's nearly-as-brilliant assistant, who is coming to realize the true horror of Yates's plans, and that there's only as much room for her in the Beautiful Land as there is for anyone else other than Yates.

It's a damn good SF novel: it moves quickly, it has real emotion, and it's filled with interesting, specific, modern people. You could do much worse than to read it.

[1] See my review for the bloody details. But it did.

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