All we survey

Neptune (NASA image)

John Dickinson: We
David Fickling Books 2010

I found this an utterly gripping novel, especially after the slow and steady start signalled by its opening:

He had asked to be alone when he woke. After all, he had reasoned, from now on he would always be alone.

But are we really, truly alone? Will there be, though we may not be aware of the fact, someone else? Are we, like Cowper’s Alexander Selkirk, wrong in our assumptions that we are monarchs of all we survey, that we’re “out of humanity’s reach” and must finish our “journey alone” even at the edge of space?

This issue is at the heart of this novel, questions about Earth’s uniqueness as a cradle for life. And if there is life ‘out there’, what form will it take?

A mission, a little over half a century from now, is based on a distant planet’s moon (probably Neptune’s Triton, though neither body is ever mentioned), there to search for extraterrestrial life. The residual team of three — missing one of its original members — is joined by Paul Munro; he’s arrived from an Earth where nearly everyone is linked to the World Ear, a future development of the internet where individuals have implants to enable them to communicate directly with others without recourse to speech, to access necessary information and to regulate emotions.

Paul, having endured an eight-year journey in a kind of stasis, and with concomitant physical changes, is not only disorientated from the journey (and from being cut off from the WE) but now also has to adjust to the dynamics of a tight-knit team — an outsider therefore who can only feel isolated from undercurrents and relationships he has not been part of. As the telemetry executive his task is to discover why radio messages back to Earth are often corrupted, but he soon discovers that this is not the only communication that has become garbled: there are unspoken messages at the station that he needs to address.

We is a cleverly plotted speculative thriller, one I found totally immersive with fascinating human characters. It sets out to explore a number of ideas: what form might an alien intelligence take, how would humans react knowing that there was no way back to Earth, why do pioneers sometimes distrust the society they have left behind, how should one interact with those whom you dislike but on whose actions you rely for continued existence?

There are also so many literary echoes, both implicit and explicit, in these pages: Biblical tropes of Eden, the Tower of Babel, the Ark, the Annunciation; the claustrophobic and suspicious atmosphere of Sartre’s Huis Clos (in English translated as No Exit or In Camera); the heart-stopping moment when Robinson Crusoe discovered the footprint that wasn’t his in the sand.

Dickinson only had his attention drawn to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian 1924 novel We after he’d chosen his own title, but retaining it kept many of the issues he includes here relevant: whether the individual becomes completely subsumed in a collective thereby losing independence of action, the implications of the development of something like the World Ear (its acronym perfectly fitting its nature), the responsibly the individual might have in ensuring the continuance of the species.

But this isn’t just an ideas novel: I enjoyed the characters Dickinson created even if they weren’t particularly likable: Munro, from whose point of view we observe events, whose life with the WE meant he found metaphors incomprehensible; Erin Vandamme, responsible for the search for life forms but unable to manage emotions well; May, the station’s doctor, who may soon be called upon to do another role; and her partner Lewis, the station manager, who appears to have secrets to hide. Flawed individuals all.

Dickinson also had me accepting the technology that might be available in the 2070s, on a planet’s captured satellite where the outside temperature was not much above Absolute Zero. Here is an environment to enjoy vicariously, knowing that to close the book was to open the door to somewhere a lot more hospitable. Like Fred Hoyle’s classic The Black Cloud (1957) in which an alien comes a-visiting, We postulates that our attempts to go out to discover alien life may be fraught with danger.


My sixth library book this year in my attempt to keep supporting my local branch: remember, use it or lose it!

26 thoughts on “All we survey

  1. I’m going to have to read this one, Chris. I’m adding it to my book list for maybe next year, or Thanksgiving. Since it’s absorbing and I’d want to read it continuously, a few days off sounds great. (I may do it earlier, :), if my library carries it.

    This season, thanks in part or in full to you, I’m going back to some sf and some dystopia, and I frankly like it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ve laid a heavy responsibility on my shoulders, Silvia, but I look forward to you enjoying the SF/dystopian fiction you choose to release me from that burden! We is not an arduous read so a couple of days may be all you need. I meant to read The Martian soon but couldn’t resist the premise promised here first!

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        1. Yes, that’s Andy Weir. And I quite liked the film of that, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, and though it was a little longer than expected it was well paced, I thought.

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          1. My library copy said it was £10.99 for the large paperback in 2010 (quite pricey for the UK even then) but I’m sure it’ll be available a lot less secondhand online.

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    1. Most of the ‘action’ (such as it is) takes place within the station apart from a prologue of sorts and a couple of dramatic excursions outside.

      The strength and weakness of the narrative for me, Laurie, is that much of the description is allusive or vague so you can imagine whatever nuts and bolts you want.
      The strongest imagery comes from the virtual scenery projected inside working areas to create ambiance for the quartet living there. It’s all very cleverly done, largely shorn of adjectives and adverbs.

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  2. This sounds incredibly interesting! I love that mix of science fiction and characters who are cut off from the world. The themes you describe seem to resonate with a book I am reading at the moment. It’s called “The Stranger in the Woods” by Michael Funker. It’s about and man who lived alone in a tent for 20 years in rural Montana. It’s all about connecting and not connecting with other people, about what makes someone a hermit and what happens when they have to reconnect with people.

    “We” is going to have too be another one for my list!!! Your reviews have a habit of doing this! 🙂

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      1. Hah! I do most of my WordPress blogging on the phone these days and have to proofread anything I type/text to see what autocorrect has decided is what I *really* meant to say! No probs, Jo, I often just silently ‘adjust’ people’s comments when it’s clear their autocorrect has willy-nilly stepped in. But … gesture typing is a new one on me! Must look that up.

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    1. I remember reading a so-so review in the Guardian of the Finkel book a while back, and I have to admit that there are times when I’m happier alone with a library of books than in company.

      But, unlike the subject of Finkel’s book I still crave communication with like minds, which is why social media is great when face-to-face gets exhausting.

      We is interesting because it’s about four people alone together ’till death them does part’, how the dynamics between them can so easily go badly wrong when suspicion and unspoken thoughts poison the atmosphere.

      Apologies for adding to your list. Not. 😁

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      1. I love libraries too, or I used to. Now they seem to be catering more for internet users than readers. I like bookshops more now, although I have to force myself to leave before my bank manager bursts into tears!

        I sometimes long for like-minded company too, which I get here on WordPress or on the Jedi Council Forums (Star Wars chat boards). But I also enjoy solitude. My son is away with his father this weekend and, although I love him very much indeed, I do enjoy time to myself. I love tidying something and finding it still tidy when I get back. That lad of mine is a “mess wizard”.

        Anyway thanks for another super review!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Squeee! I read this … wow … about 8 years ago, and really enjoyed it. I was INCREDIBLY picky about what science fiction I read (because I really didn’t know much about what was out there, and my local library, where I get most of my books from, isn’t always super up-to-date) and only read this because I had loved Dickinson’s fantasy trilogy The Cup of the World and wanted moremoremore.
    I am so glad you enjoyed this too. Sometimes you remember something more fondly than it really was, but I was nodding furiously along with everything you’ve written. 😀

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    1. I’m pleased that you and I agree on this, I’m picky too and there has to be — and I don’t know if this is the right word — an ‘authenticity’ about anything that pretends to be hard SF. By that I mean I have to invest in the characters involved, be they human or otherwise, and the science bits can have a kind of plausible logic about them even if they turn out to be unlikely by present yardsticks.

      I’m also glad you mentioned The Cup of the World. I remember finding this extraordinarily difficult to plough through, seeming to be random event following random event, but still fascinating in its depiction of an impossible world. (In some ways Christopher Priest’s Inverted World held the same fascination for me.) I think I’d get more out of it a second time round, however!

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      1. Oh you’re right about authenticity, that’s absolutely the right word. There needs to be that believability to the science and the characters.

        I remember getting thoroughly lost in The Cup of the World, it just sucked me right in. A very strange story in some ways and I felt ambiguous about the final book, but it’s still right up there for me as a great story. And yes, it definitely benefits from a reread!

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