by Eugene Byrne
published by Simon & Schuster/Earthlight
421 pages, 2001
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
Eugene Byrne maintains a Web site called The Kim Newman & Eugene Byrne Alternate History Pages. Its slogan is "We Got the Past All Messed Up." They certainly have; and they appear to be having a lot of fun in the process -- and sharing the results with their readers. Kim Newman has written a series of novels describing the worldwide repercussions of Count Dracula's victory in the events described (altogether differently) by Bram Stoker. In collaboration, Byrne and Newman have penned Back in the USSA, a mosaic of stories relating the 20th-century history of the United Socialist States of America. They have also written the as-yet-unpublished first volume in The Matter of Britain, a series taking place in Nazi-occupied Great Britain. And then there's Things Unborn, Byrne's second novel. This is how the author describes it (quoted from the aforementioned Web site):
It's a very silly story set in a parallel Britain in 2008 in which the Cuban missile crisis caused World War III, massive destruction ... And people who died prematurely in the past to come back to life. It's a sort of political thriller about how a former African slave and WW2 fighter pilot have to thwart a fundamentalist Protestant plot to overthrow King Richard III. It all makes perfect sense when you read it. Honest.
I enjoyed Things Unborn a great deal. Is it as silly as the author claims? Yes and no. Certainly the premise is outlandish. Not the part about the Cuban missile crisis turning into a nuclear war. At the time, especially, people thought it was all too likely. No, the silly premise is that since the Atom War (as it is called in the novel), people from the last couple of millennia who died prematurely are being inexplicably and randomly resurrected into perfectly healthy bodies (with a fresh set of sparkling white teeth, no less).
A typical science-fiction novel would have told a story that would have, unbeknownst at first to the protagonists, investigated and explained the mysterious resurrections. Then again, a typical novel would have simply taken the Atom War premise as an opportunity to present some kind of survivalist scenario. In this case, the resurrection of the dead is an unexplained mystery that refuses to yield its secrets. Theories abound, but no one really knows the truth. As one character puts it: "They say they're here to settle up accounts with the Almighty, or because of egons, or because of resonances or what-have-you. It's all a blooming great tombola, isn't it?"
Despite the somewhat silly premise (which has the obvious advantage of allowing Byrne to use whichever historical characters he fancies and to ignore those he doesn't), the novel is not a farce. Its characters are perhaps drawn a bit too broadly for it to be taken as drama, but the story it tells is filled with suspense, violence, pathos, political savvy and even tenderness. And the characters themselves are delightful creations, motivated by a strong sense of their respective peculiar identities.
Things Unborn is also a linguistic delight. The characters speak in all sorts of historical and speculative slangs and jargons. Byrne deftly makes everything clear in context, using many words and expressions that would, out of context, seem like meaningless gibberish. It gives this book a pleasantly offbeat voice.
One of the great pleasures of reading Eugene Byrne's work is that he doesn't deal in the ordinary. His stories are unpredictable and entertaining, in tone, subject matter, ideas, plot and characters. If one were to try to classify Things Unborn, one would be forced to say something like, "It's a speculative linguistic alternate history religious political police procedural science fiction thriller pastiche." That's quite a mouthful. I prefer to say, somewhat more simply, that it's a fun and intelligent novel. | June 2001
Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.