The Promise of the Child
Gollancz, 491 pages
Review by Duncan Lunan
Tom Toner is a new writer, and as usual in such cases, the editor and advance readers find plenty of other writers to compare him to. Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels (three times), Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, Michael Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time, David Mitchell, Alastair Reynolds, Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance and are all invoked, while Will McIntosh and Adam Roberts tell us that it’s space opera like no other!
To begin with the Asimov comparison, the novel is set in the 147th century, in 14,647 AD to be precise. 12,000 years earlier, the human race broke out to the stars. At first, recognising star designations such as Kapteyn’s Star, Barnard’s Star and Epsilon Indi, and recurring references to an 11 light-year battlefront, I thought they had stopped at what was defined as the first wave of interstellar colonisation, in my own Man and the Stars (Tau Ceti, at 12 l.y., is known here as The Last Harbour); then, from a throwaway reference to a hundred settlements, it might have been the 22-light-year radius of stars evaluated in Dole’s Habitable Planets for Man. Cryptic possible references to worlds with known exoplanets such as ‘Virginis’ put the boundary further out, and we’re told ‘Cancri’ (possibly 55 Cancri, at 40 l.y.) is the outer limit. ‘Virginis’ might then be 61 Virginis at 27.9 l.y., but ‘Aquarii’, the nearest one to it, is harder to identify. Wherever it is, I can’t believe that events in one constellation, as seen from here, can be seen in real-time from the other, as they are on p.197.
What stopped the expansion was the failure to find life, at even the lowest microscopic level, on any of the planets reached, even though a full quarter of them had high-oxygen atmospheres, like Earth towards the end of the dinosaur era. That and some other finds which I won’t give away would have worried me a great deal, too, and perhaps it’s for that reason that humans chose to go underground on many of those planets, creating ‘Vaulted Worlds’ with artificial suns inside. But whatever defences they had are evidently no longer working, because at the start of the novel one has been attacked and another destroyed. The attackers are alternative varieties of humans who have been produced either by adaptation or by deliberate modification on the more distant settlements which surround the Firmament, which designates the nearer worlds ruled by advanced, long-lived humans called the Amarinthines. There are matter-transmitter links between some of these, accessible to Amarinthines only, but there are still large numbers of operational starships, taking only weeks for interstellar journeys, though they’re very old and becoming decrepit. So unlike the Foundation series, where we have a galaxy filled with unmodified humans who have forgotten their origin, here we have a relatively small number and range of occupied worlds with Earth (the Old World) still playing a major rôle, though the capital is ‘Gliese’—possibly Gliese 526, at 16 light-years—and the dominance of the older worlds is being challenged. Although the varieties of humans are sufficiently diverse to be regarded as aliens in some ways, they have much more in common than the many races of Iain M. Banks’s Culture.
There are two main plot-lines running through the novel, both involving journeys. The first concerns a device called the Shell, which has been invented to bring war dead back to life for renewed service. I have severe doubts about the practicality of this (can you imagine what a M.A.S.H. unit would be like if it had to triage the dead as well as the living?) and it seems to invoke the concept of ‘life-force,’ which has been rejected in biology for at least a century (Richard Dawkins does a demolition job on it in Unweaving the Rainbow), and ‘yet survives, stamped on these lifeless things’ only in Torchwood and the weaker moments of Dr. Who and Star Trek. But what Tom Toner does with it is very clever, and reveals that there are much bigger and darker forces at work within the Firmament—echoing Peter F. Hamilton’s The Reality Dysfunction, I thought, though no-one seems to have added that to the list of comparisons.
These forces may or may not be in contention with a new challenge to the ruler of the Firmament, whose Emperor is a recluse who has apparently lost the plot—not least because he’s issued an edict authorising an investigation into the legitimacy of the Pretender, seriously undermining his own position. But among the Amarinthines seniority is decided literally, on the assumption that wisdom comes with increasing age, even though the older ones are increasingly becoming senile; and we know, if we’ve picked up the clues in the prologue, that the Pretender may be truly immortal and older than any of them. Echoes here of Alistair Reynolds, right enough; but as with the other comparisons, they’re not close enough to be troubling.
Caught up in all this is Lycaste, who lives in a mansion among a small settlement on the coast of the Mediterranean, is in unrequited love with Pentas, the sister of one of his neighbours, and is preoccupied with building a completely accurate model of his own house. (Echoes here of The Wasp Factory, I thought…) We learn later that this is in the Tenth Province in a spiral outwards from the Amarinthine enclave, thousands of miles across, with inhabitants diverging further from human norms and leading increasingly lawless lives, many of them now in outright rebellion. Lycaste’s less-than-happy existence is further spoiled by the arrival of Callistemon, a government census-taker from the Second Province, whom he throws from a window after the inspector forms a liaison with Pentas and sets fire to the model. Lycaste then goes on the run, wandering across large tracts of open country before blundering into violent situations in neighbouring Provinces. There are definite echoes here of Jack Vance, particularly of Cugel the Clever (which Lycaste is not), and also of Silverberg’s Majipoor, not the mention the Wolfe and Moorcock comparisons—nor Sheckley’s Journey of Joenes and its 18th century inspiration, Fielding’s Tom Jones. But all is not as it seems, or even as it seems to seem: Lycaste’s saga is all part of what seems an excessively ramshackle plot to have him brought to trial in the Second Province by Callistemon’s family, in order to lure out and kill the child-heir to the Firmament throne. Yet Lycaste hasn’t killed Callistemon, though he checks the body for life-signs and is sure he has none, and Callistemon’s family are still seeking revenge at the end of the book. Callistemon survives with only a head-wound, only to succumb to a condition which suggests that either he or Pentas are not who we’ve been told they are.
Of all the elements in this complex novel, I had biggest trouble with Lycaste’s story. The lure to attract the boy-king is that Lycaste is outstandingly beautiful, but when he’s on his travels nobody takes much notice; and if that’s all it takes to bring the boy within gunshot, why not simply abduct Lycaste or bring him to the Second Province on some simpler, more reliable pretext? (As it is, Callistemon’s sister nearly frustrates the entire plot by simply stabbing Lycaste in revenge.) But I was even more thrown when suddenly everbody there starts referring to him as a giant. Checking back, he is indeed a member of an advanced variety of human called the Melius, bred to serve the Amarinthines, and described in the early chapters as ‘huge’. Lycaste is indeed bigger than Callistemon (a lot bigger, we suddenly learn when they come to blows), and Jotrofe, a suspected Amarinthine living in their community, is described as little. But the census-taker is in turn bigger than Pentas’s sister; yet in dialogues between Lycaste and Pentas there’s no hint of a difference in size which might preclude a physical relationship. To complicate things further, we’re told on p.41 that ‘the kingdom of the giant Melius is where they shall stay; they would never risk coming here, into the greater Firmament’. Yet Lycaste and his fellows live independent and prosperous lives, and he’s not obviously different from the people he meets in neighbouring Districts before his capture, so it looks as if there’s a substantial Melius presence on Earth itself, and they’re not in service to anyone.
That’s not the only such problem I had. We’re told by Lycaste’s father and others that Earth’s Moon, though terraformed (the Green Moon), is off-limits. Supposedly, people there are so adapted to lunar conditions, of their own choice, that they can’t come to Earth. Yet at the beginning of Part III, it seems there are Melius on the Moon, and travel between the Moon and Earth is commonplace. In a first novel, it’s possible that such non-sequiturs could be a product of the rewritings which are hinted at in the Acknowledgments; but in such a complicated plot, with so much vital information given earlier in what seem at the time to be minor asides, it’s possible that the confusions are only apparent and there are more clues which I’ve missed.
The book’s title comes from Ovid, through Lycaste’s father, and Lycaste applies it to his own shortcomings: “How little is the promise of the child fulfilled in the man.” But we know from the very first part of the prologue, when we apparently glimpsed the Pretender in 14th century Prague, that there was another child of great promise whom he took under his wing, away back then. Will the next book clear up all these puzzles? As this is Volume One of a trilogy called The Amarinthine Spectrum, I suspect that Volume Two will make things still more complicated.
This review was first published in Shoreline of Infinity 2.