Saturn Returns, by Sean Williams

Sean Williams – Saturn Returns
Orbit, 2007, 292, £10.99, ISBN 978-1-84149-518-7

Ex-galactic mercenary Imre Bergamasc was stored in machine-readable form, encoded in a groove running around the inside of a giant iron cylinder that was subsequently destroyed by a nuclear explosion. He was resurrected when some aliens kindly reconstructed the cylinder, having tracked down its composite atoms in the depths of space. It’s understandable that there are gaps in his memory and various other quirks, such as the fact that he is now a woman. He sets off into the blue yonder, occasionally stumbling across old friends or enemies to help or impede his progress. Bit by bit he tracks down clues, finds out what happened to the vast galactic empire he remembers so fondly, and begins to suspect sneakingly that maybe he – or at least the original Imre who created the backup – is the one who brought it down.

We’re encouraged to think Big. Big, big, big. The empire – the Continuum – was strung together like a giant Internet where the servers are quasars, artificially manipulated to encode information in their pulses. Imre’s ship tells him that a journey will take 1200 years and he doesn’t bat an eyelid. The story is set 800,000 years from now, Imre’s career spans half of that and some characters go back to the twentieth century. Big.

Pointlessly big, perhaps; the story often feels smaller. The Continuum fell centuries ago, but thanks to science where your personal time rate can be juggled and death is only a relative term, it only seems like a few years. Everyone remembers it like it was only a few years, acts as if it was only a few years … So why not make it a few years? Nor are these the frightened people of Clarke’s Diaspar, still haunted after thousands of years by the echoes of Mankind’s lost empire. The folk here seem to have got over the Continuum like we’ve got over the Romans. And as the standard of living is still pretty high, armies of galactigoths singularly fail to swarm over the borders, even a small surviving fragment of the Continuum consists of several suns and planets shunted together into one big supersystem … you can’t help wondering exactly what difference the Continuum made while it was still around, or what loss it is to anyone now living, or whether a similar story couldn’t have been told within a much smaller setting.

Imre’s sex change seems like the good idea that sparked off the story – but then the story grew legs of its own and the idea could have been discarded. On a couple of occasions, Imre’s old acquaintances refuse to believe it’s him, as he’s suddenly a she. This in a universe of full body backups, routine dividing of consciousness between different bodies in different time periods, duplicates of the same person trying to kill each other so as to be the only one again … changing one teeny chromosome shouldn’t be much of a challenge.

Quibbles. We have a vast galactic backdrop, against which individuals are scuttling whose life stories tell the story of the galaxy. Questions are raised of identity and guilt. Imre is a corrupted backup. Is he the same man as the original? He’s pretty certain he wouldn’t do what the original did. There again, he doesn’t know all the circumstances that the original faced. And the original is still out there. Keep reading because it’s worth it. And if you’re a Gary Numan fan – I’m not, so needed the explanatory appendix – there’s extra value added.