Bleak History by John Shirley (2009)

October 3rd, 2009

I finished Bleak History a few days ago, but I wanted to let the book ferment a little before I wrote a review. I keep trying to find things I didn’t like about it, but, except for a few minor nits, I have come to the conclusion that this is John Shirley’s best novel since Eclipse. It is certainly the best written and paced of all of his novels.

The setting of Bleak History is a near future where the “wall” between the supernatural world and objective reality is breaking down. Certain sensitive persons can use the forces that are leaking between worlds. The hero is a man with an ability to harness the unseen forces and the villains are the agents of a secret government agency that is trying to abuse the powers of the unseen to their advantage.

The conflict gives rise to sexual tension between a female government agent and the protagonist. The action is largely the protagonist avoiding capture, and the search for his long lost twin brother, and trying to understand the how reality is being redefined.

My major nit is that it is an urban fantasy style novel and not purely Science Fiction. I tend to be a golden age hard science fiction bigot, although I enjoy an occasional fantasy. I normally dislike books that use the supernatural as a theme with para-religious elements such as ghosts, demons and magic. John Shirley treats these elements as phenomenological and understandable through scientific analysis and experiments. This takes the sting out of the supernatural theme. At least there were no zombies or vampires.

There are no low points in the novel. Shirley has done a great job of creating a non-stop thriller with well-crafted three-dimensional characters and frightening villains. Once he explains the initial setting the action pulls you through each chapter, building to a satisfying ending. Shirley does create a conclusion to the novel where some of the conflicts are not quite resolved, leaving room for a sequel, but that may have been to appease the publishing minds who cannot conceive of a standalone novel as being successful. The novel stands on its own. If there is a sequel in the works, I will be interested in finding out what becomes of some of the characters not fully accounted for at the end of this novel.

Bleak History is a fantasy novel that has its roots in SF type fantasy such a Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife and Heinlein’s Magic Incorporated. Bleak History has quite a bit in common Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos books. It has that sense of wonder that is characteristic of the best Science Fiction, and it will sit on my bookshelf with the books that I will read again and again.


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