Confluence, Paul J. McAuley

SFBC, 2000, 878 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 0-7394-1271-X

Note to self (1): Stay away from fat fantasy trilogies. Even when they’re not fantasy, not physically presented as trilogies and not particularly fat as far as fantasy trilogies go. Case in point: Paul J. McAuley’s SFBC omnibus edition of his Confluence trilogy (Child of the River, Ancients of Days and Shrine of Stars), which purports to be “sufficiently advanced” science-fiction masquerading as fantasy. While the background is undoubtedly a creation of nanotechnology and the tale eventually involves immortals, galaxies, massive celestial engineering and a bunch of other SFnal elements, the treatment is one of a classic fantasy quest. It begins as a child is mysteriously brought on a strange fantastical land (Confluence, evidently) and gets started as the now-teenager sets out to discover the world and the secrets of his origin. The usual adventures ensue, complete with revelations, escapes, bloodshed, battles, travels and betrayals.

Note to self (2): It’s not because I liked one book by an author that I will enjoy all of his other books. If I had paid attention, I would have remembered my very mixed reactions to McAuley’s previous Pasquale’s Angels and Fairyland. Only The Secret of Life struck a nerve, and that was in an explicitly hard-SF mode. I should have read the Confluence‘s cover blurb more carefully before committing to it.

Note to self (3): I have to face it; I’m just not suited to heroic fantasy. Even though Confluence is supposed to be a hard-SF world with a veneer of fantasy plotting, it’s probably more exact to speak of a heroic fantasy story with hard-SF details and justifications. The style of writing, the heroic progression of the protagonist, the serial nature of the plotting, the various medieval-era social structures are all unmistakable hallmarks of heroic fantasy. And try as I might, I just can’t get interested in this mode of storytelling. (No, I didn’t like Gene Wolfe’s New Sun cycle either.) The florid, often exasperating, prose should have been a tip-off. The episodic adventures and indestructible villains should have been another. But nooo, I kept slogging and that brings me to…

Note to self (4): There is a problem if I spend more than two weeks on the same book. When I took Confluence from my bookshelves, the summer sun was still shining outside. While I slogged through the book, months passed, leaves fell along with the temperature, some actor had the time to announce his candidacy for the governorship of California —and get it. Yet I wasn’t making any progress through the book. I can easily do 500 pages per day if I want to. But this time, I just didn’t. Part of the problem, mind you, is that for the longest time the story doesn’t do anywhere either. And even what appear to be significant plot developments end up being, well, not so important in the grand scheme of things.

Note to self (5): My stupid male pride has to go. I have to learn how to cut out my losses early. It’s not as if I didn’t know early on, even fifty pages in, that my chances of enjoying this book were becoming microscopic. But as other macho men may vow to spend weeks hunting that elusive elk, beating that world record or tuning that engine to a purr, my own feeble intellectual version of pure male obstinacy consists in never abandoning a book midway through. I have to learn how to get rid of that trait.

Note to self (6): This is no reason to give up on Paul J. McAuley. Spring will come again, that actor won’t stay in office forever and McAuley will write other books. Should I stay away from them because Confluence was such a bore? Hardly. Any author capable of novels like The Secret of Life certainly deserves another chance. It just won’t be an expensive 800+ pages hardcover chance.

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