Recently, NPR asked its readers to nominate and then vote on the top 100 science fiction and fantasy novels (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/11/139085843/your-picks-top-100-science-fiction-fantasy-books). It's a fascinating list as indicative of the general taste in speculative fiction as much a guidepost to my own. For in the top 100 books, I had read most of them, at least heard of all the rest except for a single book, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. I did a little research and liked the few synopses I read of the book, so I asked for it for my birthday and received it.
The Eyre Affair is squarely set in the speculative fiction genre, being an alternate history, where Wales is a communist country separate from the United Kingdom, England and Russia have fought the Crimean War for over 100 years, and England itself is run not completely behind the scenes by a megalithic multinational called Goliath Corporation. It should come as no surprise that those last two items are linked: as long as England can remain at war, weapons manufacturer Goliath can maintain control over the English economy by its weapon sales…and also sell those same weapons to Russia, thus prolonging the war even further.
We are introduced to this world by Thursday Next, an intrepid agent for Secret Operations, an English police organization with 30 levels. Thursday is a LiteraTec, low on the totem pole and responsible for preventing and solving crimes against literature, such as stopping the sale of fake manuscripts and stopping the performance of bad interpretations of great plays. She is very good at her job despite the demons from her past that haunt her, and so she gets temporarily promoted to help capture a former professor of her, the vile master criminal Acheron Hades. At a stakeout intended just to gather evidence that will eventually lead to Hades, the antagonist himself shows up and makes a shambles out of all the SpecOps forces arrayed against him, demonstrating superheroic or supernatural powers while killing nearly everyone involved in the stakeout. Only Thursday survives, somehow immune to Hades's extraordinary powers. SpecOps also believes Hades to have died in the battle, taking with him the original manuscript of Charles Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit, so Thursday decides to return home to the English countryside to recuperate from the disaster of her last case as she works for the far less volatile SpecOps office in Swindon. Of course, as you might imagine, the adventure is only starting for her as more and more evidence makes it clear that Hades is not dead and actually in the Swindon area himself.
There are some wonderful ideas in this novel, especially when it comes to the inventive uses of texts and manuscripts. In this parallel universe, the written word has another kind of magic than the one it carries in our universe: the stories are actually happening in pocket universes and Thursday's uncle invents a way to get into the stories…and bring characters out of them into the real world. Time travel is also possible in Fforde's universe; in fact, Thursday's father is a chronocop who stops by to visit her at the most awkward times, asking questions that indicate he is somehow mixed up in a timestream that seems remarkably similar to our own. But Fforde only plays with these ideas, not giving them much depth and instead making them the background for mildly humorous moments. A fairly serious evaluation of the powers that Acheron Hades wields quickly indicates that is potentially the most dangerous man on that planet, but he chooses to be (or is written to be) farcical, rather like Cesar Romero's Joker in the old Batman TV series as opposed to the sociopath as Heath Ledger portrays him in The Dark Knight.
Too much of the book is based on authorial decisions like this, going for the cute rather than the even mildly thoughtful, resulting in a novel that while fun to read and a page-turner is really very slight. As I read, I found myself longing for the Bob Howard stories by Charles Stross, a series with a similar idea as its background and, while humorous, more thoughtful as well. Perhaps there is something fundamentally more thought-provoking about Stross's universe, where the creatures of H.P. Lovecraft are real and perpetually trying to take over the world, but Stross also goes out of his way to set his writing at the intersection between speculative fiction and spy novels. The Eyre Affair, on the other hand, seems a random set of circumstances that pushes the plot along. The result is that most disheartening of investigation novels—coincidences solve the crime rather than the skill of the detectives.
The Eyre Affair also feels torn as to what kind of book it should be. While there is a somewhat steady movement towards the solution of the crimes at hand, Thursday is often distracted by the return home—an invitation to speak at a pro-Crimean War rally that she feels no obligation for, dealing with one brother who she despises and the memory of another who was killed in a modern version of the Charge of the Light Brigade, and alternately dodging and dating her ex-boyfriend for whom she has carried a torch for ten years. In more skillful hands, these kinds of interludes offer background and cast a spotlight on attributes of the protagonist. But Fforde continues to play it cute, so that these other things fall into the story like boulders dropped by giants, impeding the progress of the primary storyline rather than complementing it. Thursday's narrative voice potentially is a strong point; she does seem an interesting character and Fforde has made her a vibrant female lead in stories usually reserved for men. But that voice is lost in the cuteness of it all and never lives up to its potential.
The Eyre Affair is a popcorn book, easily read and curious, but quickly dismissed when the reader sets it down. There are a number of other books in the Thursday Next series, providing the stereotypical week's worth of reading for vacations at the beach. I don't think of myself as dour, and this book did make me smile at times, but I prefer my humor to be used as a tool to get to deeper things. It was a fun sojourn, but I'll be spending my time in other worlds instead.