This review of No Traveller Returns by Paul Park and Mayflower II by Stephen Baxter was written in 2004 for the British Science Fiction Association‘s magazine, Vector.
Mayflower II, PS Publishing, 2004, Paperback, 88pp, £10.00, ISBN 1 904619 16 9
No Traveller Returns, PS Publishing, 2004, Paperback, 74pp, £10.00, ISBN 1 904619 02 9
Here are two refreshingly brief new novellas from PS Publishing, whom it’s always a pleasure to receive anything from: even more so if Stephen Baxter is involved.
Paul Park I know rather less about, but, hey, a life with no surprises is no life at all, eh?
Mayflower II follows an otherwise fairly minor episode from Baxter’s Xeelee sequence, one that sees five generation ships launched following the ousting of the Qax (for those who know their Xeelee sequence). One of these ships, in a colossal act of hubris on the part of its captain, is placed on a heading that leads clear out of the galaxy for a voyage the crew estimate will take 50,000 years.
Mayflower II continues Baxter’s current fascination with human evolution (his latest Destiny’s Children sequence has similar concerns). One member of the initial crew is given a form of immortality so that he can watch over the ‘transients’ during the voyage. As you might expect, these best-laid plans go totally awry. Our immortal narrator, Rusel, is worn down by the weight of the passing years, and his charges are shaped rather than worn by a combination of those same years and their strange environment, becoming both increasingly estranged from each other and from the wider universe.
It’s a well told and poignant tale, the ever-increasing speed at which narrative time passes making events seem at once tragic and horrifying. You can’t help but wonder at the transient state Baxter reveals our present humanity to be in. The story is a genuinely chilling knock to our (usually unstated) assumptions that humanity is somehow the pinnacle, the teleological end-product of evolution – not to mention being a fine piece of science fiction that H.G Wells would probably have appreciated.
If you are reading Baxter’s Destiny’s Children series (and I know I am) then Mayflower II is a brief but worthwhile footnote to that far larger story.
And a mention must also go to Adam Roberts, whose nine-page introduction to Mayflower II is, as ever, a stimulating hors d’oeuvre to the main course, helpfully raising nuances and elements that you might otherwise overlook. I was certainly glad of his guiding hand during my reading.
Paul Park’s No Traveller Returns is a Kafka-esque trip into the afterlife – slipstream (or New Weird, if you must) rather than sf or fantasy. The central character, Paul, is an unfulfilled traveller, a lonely wanderer who returns home to the US when he discovers Jim, his old teacher, is dying. However, when Jim breathes his last Paul’s own meagre investment in this life seems to be insufficient to keep him here and he follows Jim into a bizarre world of the afterlife. There he encounters harsh mountains, crazed nuns, fascist authority figures and a host of unpleasant ape-like creatures.
Sad to say, No Traveller Returns did nothing to shed any light on either the afterlife or this life for me. I found it rather flatly written and lacking any real passion or feeling – rather like its protagonist. Despite being a story about lack and loss, I wasn’t moved to feel for Paul at all. In fact, I was rather confused as to what I, as a reader, was supposed to make of a book in which things just seemed to happen, particularly in the afterlife, to no discernible end.
Initially, in the real world, Paul and the story seem to be going somewhere – nowhere earth-shattering admittedly, but somewhere worth following. When we enter the afterlife this direction is almost entirely lost in a blizzard of gratuitous strangeness (strange in a rather listless and unconnected way though, as when someone else tries to tell you about this really really weird dream they had – does anyone find other people’s dreams as interesting as the dreamers themselves do?). The closest literary comparison I can think of is Steve Aylett’s Accomplice series, but without the ruthless lunatic humour of those books.
It’s perhaps a strange confession to have to make, but for all that No Traveller Returns suggests itself as the more overtly ‘spiritual’ book, I couldn’t help feeling that I learned more about the human condition from Baxter’s vision of evolutionary pressures at work in a lost starship. I was also more entertained at the same time.