ome 3,000 years beyond our time, the wedge of galactic space inhabited by humans and several other sentient races is under attack by "plaque," a kind of informational entropy virus which locks down the biocybernetic infrastructure of entire worlds (and now threatens to jump to the cerebral structures of individual sentients as well). But on the untainted worlds, life proceeds pretty much as always, with humans, the relative newbies among the starfarers, holding a special position due to our odd evolutionary background. Envied for our unique sexual peculiarities and associational body-phenomena, we are nonetheless cut off from the numinous holistic way of knowing enjoyed by every other race.
Protagonist Nathaniel Freer is captain of the self-aware mystery ship called Tile Dance. (The ship's AI, named Kirtt, likes to refer to Freer fondly as "Stinky.") Freer is a bright and lively fellow, but very much an unquestioning member of his race. Content to earn his living shipping goods from system to system, he arrives on the planet Trencher to pick up what appears to be a conventional cargo. Relaxing offship while the freight is loaded, Freer suddenly experiences twin perils at once. Plaque begins to attack the planet, causing chaos, simultaneous with an assault from a ship in orbit belonging to the alien Harpe. The latter raid seems directed exclusively against Freer himself.
Freer fights his way back to Tile Dance and escapes the dying planet. Onboard, he finds several newcomers: two more AIs, named Uncle Sam and Vipassana, and an alien named Mamselle Cunning Earth Link, who holds the secret of their destination. Freer learns that they are to journey to Eolhxir, a world where a cache of Predecessor artifacts called "lenses" has been found. These objects of a vanished race hold the key to conquering plaque, and are also coveted by the Harpe.
Damaged in its escape, the Tile Dance heads toward an artificial world-cum-repair-station named Klavier. There, literally submerged within the mutable globe, which proves to be a Predecessor fortress, Freer will encounter the strange immortal being who calls himself Johnny Appleseed--a kind of Tom Bombadil of the Spaceways--as well as his long-lost, presumed-dead paramour, Ferocity Monthly-Niece. Besieged by the forces of the Harpe, betrayed from within, Freer, Ferocity and their comrades must undergo psychosomatic upheavals to become more than themselves, in order to fulfill their destiny, and the galaxy's.
A space opera for the 21st century
There's a major critical paper awaiting anyone knowledgeable and undaunted enough to track the development of postmodern space opera, that inevitable reaction to the simplicities of E.E. "Doc" Smith and his peers--from the proto-glimmerings in the work of A.E. van Vogt, down through Alfred Bester and Cordwainer Smith, on to Frank Herbert, Samuel R. Delany and John Varley, then the explosion in recent years that includes Alastair Reynolds, Simon Ings, Alexander Jablokov, Linda Nagata, Scott Westerfeld, Paul McAuley, Vernor Vinge, Colin Greenland, Charles Sheffield, Stephen Baxter and Tony Daniel. It would take someone who has assimilated all these writers and others to produce such an essay.
Well, noted critic and scholar John Clute (whose one previous novel appeared over two decades ago), is that very emblem of such an omnivorous intellect, and Appleseed is the essay I was alluding to, only in narrative form. This book sits at the top of the mountain of achievement in postmodern space opera that has gone before, commenting on all its predecessors (not coincidentally, the name of the vanished alien elders in the book itself) while adding its glittering capstone to the peak. Any reader with even a passing familiarity with SF will unpack scores of allusions in this novel (and not only to SF, but to much other pop culture and literature), layering skin upon skin of meaning to the reading experience, much as the world Klavier itself is formed onion-style.
But Clute does not content himself merely with others' borrowings, or simple reverse engineering. He invents prolifically as well, inserting epistemological and metaphysical subtexts galore. No object or setting in this book has not been torn down and rebuilt according to hard-won insights into the allures of this kind of fiction. And every sentence is a masterful concatenation of bright images captured in nets of wit and wryness. The combination of ideational fecundity and combustible language resembles the love child of Little Nemo and Krazy Kat. Lucidity and density, comedy and gravitas balance in the scales of Clute's Muse.
If fault lines exist in this book, they occur in its compression across space and time. Freer keeps commenting on what a "long day" he's had, and the action indeed spans something approximating 24 hours (not counting the downtime of hibernation during space travel between Trencher and Klavier). Not much time for vast vistas to manifest. Also, count the characters: including the AIs and the Harpe commander, only eight major personages. Hardly enough to populate a subgenre that Brian Aldiss once referred to as "widescreen baroque." But of course, what we have, and that's a cornucopia, we have in spades.