Savant by Nik Abnett

Nik Abnett
Rebellion / Solaris, 356 pages
Review: Steve Ironside

Savant is set in a College – a place where the Masters (helped by their Companions and Assistants) teach their Students, while the ever-watching Service manages the schedules of them all, minute-by-minute and day-by-day. This regimen isn’t just about teaching however; there’s a deeper agenda to the activity of the Colleges. When the erratic behaviour of one of the Masters puts the whole system gets put at risk, Service must deal with the situation before the whole house of cards they’ve created comes tumbling down, with consequences that could spark an unimaginable global calamity.

As a potted synopsis, that sounded really interesting: personal drama against a backdrop of approaching danger, set in a world of rules and authoritarian control. Just the kind of thing I was in the mood for. As always, though, the devil is in the details.

My danger sense started to tingle on page 1. I’ve never been a fan of inventing language just to make things sound more futuristic, and the immediate use of invented words such as “cotpro”, “woolpro” and “linopro” raised flags – I wanted there to be a rationale as to why these were different from cotton, wool and lino. Maybe the College did things differently from the rest of the world; perhaps there was a reason for these different things to exist, but no real explanation was forthcoming, other than a passing reference to rationing and privilege. Whether it’s Newspeak in Orwell’s 1984, or Nadsat in Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, the use of language permeates the setting and should inform the reader in some way; for me, there was a missed target here that turned the world into a screen upon which things were shown to me, rather than something that engaged me and drew me in.

The plot follows Metoo – an unusual woman in that she acts as both a Companion and an Assistant – and her Master Tobe, who starts to exhibit unexpected behaviour. Tobe, like all members of the College, doesn’t think about the world outside of his research and teaching – as the title suggests, he’s an autistic savant. With an obsessive focus on his work in addition to his mental disorder, he reacts badly to changes in his routine – much like Raymond in the movie Rain Man. As his new mantra that “Nothing is the same” takes root, attempts by Service to rectify the situation only make Tobe worse. The story follows the ripples of effect as they touch Metoo’s life, and as events escalate further, the lives of other College personnel, and operators at Service as well.

As I progressed through the book, I felt the need to ask “why?” a lot – I wanted to understand how the world had come to be this way; why the rules of this society had come into being, and what possessed the authorities to, in essence, enslave a significant percentage of the population? Alas, I was disappointed – other than vague allusions to a global catastrophe that start to surface later in the book, the world outside of the College and Service remains mostly unexplored. While this can be used to good effect in a story – take the movie Cube as a terrific example – it only really works if the world outside the story is either completely irrelevant, or is a central part of the book’s mystery and is intended to force the reader to imagine. In Savant, the world lies somewhere in-between – the external environment and its pressures directly affect the decisions that Service makes. However, because I couldn’t see that bigger picture, none of these choices felt particularly urgent, or made me sympathetic to either the characters, or the pressures that they are under. The glimpses that were handed out just served to make me want to know why, as opposed to inviting me to imagine what could actually be going on.

Despite these misgivings, I did find the book to be an easy read – the story rattles along at a comfortable pace, and beyond the College environment there are a couple of characters that I did find very engaging.

It’s a readable story that I finished in a couple of sittings. However, it’s not a book that I would return to again. Savant is ultimately emotionally flat and unsatisfying. That’s a shame, because I suspect that outside of the College, there is a fascinating world waiting to be revealed.

This review was originally published in Shoreline of Infinity Issue 6.