This book review of Quietus by Tristan Palmgren was written in 2018 for the British Science Fiction Association‘s magazine, Vector.
Angry Robot, 2018, Paperback, 444pp, £8.99, ISBN 9780857667434
Angry Robot are really on a roll of late, publishing an impressive array of smart, exciting science fiction and fantasy work from both sides of the Atlantic. Quietus, the first novel from Tristan Palmgren, is no exception: an ambitious, sublime, but very human debut.
The narrative is initially divided between Habidah and Niccoluccio: the latter is a 14th century monk in an Italy about to be devastated by the Black Death; the former is an anthropologist, studying the effects of the plague upon different cultures.
We follow Niccoluccio as plague arrives at the isolated monastery where he has lived quietly for many years, and Habidah as she tracks the plague, using advanced technologies to conceal herself from the doomed locals, although in our first encounter she can’t help but try to warn a local trader of the danger.
He, of course, doesn’t believe her – why ever would he?
The ensuing scenes when the leathal contagion reaches Sacro Cuore, Niccoluccio’s home, are simply heartbreaking as we watch this gentle, ancient community quickly vanish. Returning to Habidah, we find her veneer of detachment becoming ever-more difficult to sustain as the apocalypse hits, and Palmgren’s writing evokes a truly claustrophobic sense of helpless doom in these sections. It’s very powerful stuff, with an awful sense of actually being there in the midst of the Black Death.
For Niccoluccio, there’s no escape, but Habidah eventually climbs aboard a shuttle and returns to the hidden secret base that her team is monitoring the plague’s spread from. Who are these observers? They’re part of a huge ever-expanding multiversal federation, the Unity, which contains millions of different worlds and trillions of people, all managed by a group of super-intelligent AI’s, the amalgamates, who have been expanding the Unity at breakneck speed throughout the multiverse.
But the disaster unfolding upon this single plague-afflicted Earth is being mirrored on a far larger scale across the Unity, which is facing its own terrifying, unknowable, and unstoppable plague, the oneirophage. Habidah and her team are not here to help this Earth; their cold-hearted mission is to stay hidden and to understand how the stricken population respond to what is, as far as they know, the end of the world. The Unity’s rulers are preparing for the worst.
You can’t write about super-intelligent AI managing immense mostly human civilisations without mentioning the B-word: Banks. The Unity isn’t quite everyone’s favourite post-scarcity, anarcho-communist society, although the similarities are far greater than the differences (to begin with at least). The Amalgamates aren’t Minds, the Unity isn’t the Culture, and Tristan Palmgren isn’t Banks – but if Palmgren hasn’t read at least some M. Banks’ novels then there’s some spookily parallel evolution going on, for sure.
Regardless of the influences here, Quietus is a stunning first novel. It’s packed with emotion, intelligence, and philosophy, spans entire universes and has a cast of trillions, which makes it all the more miraculous how personal the viewpoint often is – Olaf Stapledon this is not.
Sat alone one evening, reading Quietus with some quiet neoclassical music playing in the background, I stopped reading, put the book down and simply thought about what I was reading: how Niccoluccio’s self-contained, monastic, silent world was collapsing around his ears. It felt all too real, in the same way as Hilary Mantel’s Tudor England feels real. Palmgren had painted an emotionally bleak picture of the Black Death, but also a very calm one; not a “cosy catastrophe” by any means, but a sobering, thoughtful apocalypse of the heart. It’s not a moment I shall forget in a hurry.
And then, yes, the world turns once more: Niccoluccio meets Habidah and discovers how tiny the world he inhabits really is, a precipitous zooming-out that you might expect would break his closeted Medieval mind, but doesn’t. The book’s second half then brings a “zooming-out” from Habidah’s world(s), one of another order of magnitude entirely, yet still with Niccoluccio at its heart.
Quietus is simply stunning, some of the biggest and best science fiction I’ve read in all too long a time.