Freedom & Necessity
by Steven Brust and Emma Bull
Tor, ISBN 0-312-85974-0, 1997, 444pp, US$25.95
I have mixed feelings about FREEDOM & NECESSITY. On the one hand, it captures very well the feel of the nineteenth century epistolary novel (or first-person narration in general). On the other, it is slow- moving and hard-to-follow, in part because the various characters who are narrating are either concealing information from each other, or are simply mistaken about what is happening.
The story is set in England of the mid-nineteenth century. Although several reviews have hinted that this is some sort of alternate history, it really seems at most a secret history, if that. Yes, there are real historical figures interacting with the main (fictional) characters, but that does not an alternate history make. So in this historical England, we discover that James Cobham, whom his family thought drowned –in fact, saw drowned–is in fact alive, though without any memory of what has happened in the months between his “death” and his re-appearance. Though he doesn’t actually re-appear in a flourish, but only in secret and to his closest friends.
In addition to trying to solve the mystery of James’s absence, and avoid a more permanent demise, the characters also discuss Kant and Hegel and the British class system.
One might ask at this point why this book is being promoted a s science fiction (or perhaps more accurately, fantasy). The answer is- -I don’t know. It seems more because Brust and Bull are known as SF authors than because of any inherent SF aspect to the novel. (I suppose that in itself may constitute a bit of a spoiler.) There are certainly goings on that have fantastical origins, meanings, or referents, but they are (so far as one can tell) completely mundane in actuality.
And while there were aspects of the plot that held my interest, the resolution is too pat, too dependent on people acting in seemingly irrational ways, too dependent on people *depending* on people acting in irrational ways. Or, strangely enough, on people acting rationally when one would expect them to act irrationally.
Ultimately, I think my problem with FREEDOM & NECESSITY is that it imitates the nineteenth century style without completing achieving its content or characterization. I like authors such as the Brontes and George Eliot, but while FREEDOM & NECESSITY captures some of their style, it doesn’t quite capture their essence for me. (I realize that some might say that complaining that Brust & Bull are no George Eliot is an unfair comparison, but there you have it.)
Other reviews of this book: Review by Elisabeth Carey