If you think Greg Egan isn’t to your liking – too dense, too much math, too much science – Perihelion Summer is the title for you. With hardly any science inside, this novella shows yet another side of Australia’s most reclusive science fiction author.
While it may have a difficult world in the title, the fact that Tor published it is an indication of its accessibility. Length is another argument to give it a chance: its 214 pages offer a short, smooth, engaging read. While every online bookstore or professional review I’ve consulted seems to consider this a novel, Egan himself calls it a novella on his own website. That classification does matter, as I’ll explain below.
So what’s this little gem about?
Well – climate change, but not as you know it. None of the man-made stuff of Termination Shock or The Ministry for the Future, but change brought about by Taraxippus – a black hole one-tenth the mass of the sun that passes through our solar system.
Even though the origin of the problem in the story is formally much more in line with Ballard’s classic The Drowned World, it is exactly through the science fictional lens of a cosmic disaster that Egan manages to say a lot about man-made climate change nonetheless. His choice allows him to speed things up, and because of that, tell a more powerful story.
To say much more would spoil things. It is such a short book that it would be a shame if you go in knowing too much – I advise against reading the Kirkus review or the ones on SFFWorld or Locus. Egan expertly manages to surprise his readers, and while you have a few inklings where the story will go, it takes a few twists and turns that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. This very much a page-turner, with fairly diverse parts – a prepper tale, something akin an action thriller, an apocalyptic real-world-horror chapter, a hard SF description of a cosmic accident, …
I can say this about the content though: the book centers on Matt Fleming and a few of his friends, who prepared for the calamities brought by the black hole by building a self-sustainable seagoing vessel that functions as a habitat too. The gravity of the black hole will have an effect on sea levels, is their thinking. The book is set in and around Australia, and that focus on the southern hemisphere provides a welcome change of scenery from most others speculative stories.
Some negative reviews I’ve read expected more, claiming the book doesn’t offer much else than a sketch. While I can understand this criticism, I can’t agree with it. It all depends on the mindset with which you flip the first page: if you go in expecting a full-fledged novel, you might be disappointed, yes, but if you expect a novella, it should cater to all your needs. More so, I liked the fact that Perihelion Summer wasn’t overwritten, providing a focused ride, no fluff, no superfluous detail, no hundreds of pages of backstory, no world building for its own sake. Simply a few powerful vignettes – you could also consider this as a few sequenced short stories.
Tor is to blame, I guess: they should have marketed this clearly as a novella.
The characters are well portrayed given the work’s length. They do what they need to do, and Egan provides depth were needed, without resorting to melodrama or psychoanalysis. The writing is crisp, the message chilling.
Locus’ Russell Letson was very right when he wrote that the story’s conclusion is unexpected and satisfying. “Egan is modeling both an accelerated version of the future we face and a perhaps-as-unlikely kind of response to it – a rational and humane refusal to give up or give in to survivalist power fantasies and magical thinking.”
It is a bleak, truthful book, but not wholly without hope.
Egan opposes “using quotes from authors on book jackets”, as I talked about in my review of Schild’s Ladder. But that was 2002. The laws of the market tend to be brutal, and so Kim Stanley Robinson is quoted, on the back and the front. Whatever Egan’s feelings on the matter, Robinson’s “Bravo” is well-earned.
Considering the fact that it is a novella, Perihelion Summer easily gets the full 5 stars.