Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Book four in the Flying Crooked series
By Geoff Nelder
ISBN: 978-0-9975549-6-0, Oct 2023, 126 pages
It’s obvious from Geoff Nelder’s writing that he has a background in teaching. His books are not only easy-to-read and fast-paced – the kind of writing that would appeal to any age – but also are written in such a way that the actual science behind his concepts is clearly explained even if it is being applied to a fanciful, futuristic story. You always end up a bit smarter when you complete a Nelder book. HIs latest novel, Vanished Earth, is the fourth book in the Flying Crooked series and the settings this time is Earth, no less inventive for being our own planet. This earth is some 1500 years into the future and when the book opens, it seems to have disappeared, hence the book’s title. Could it be that blue “oblate spheroid of approximately the volume of Earth” has been engulfed by Jupiter? There is a strange blue circle appearing on the red gas giant that looks suspiciously like our Earth.
I won’t give anything away in this review, but Vanished Earth is firmly rooted in our solar system this time, and even more immediately in Sheffield where Nelder went to university and met his wife. The setting is depicted with the rich details of someone who understands the terrain, and the Yorkshire accents have become only a bit stranger, but even after all that time, human beings are uncannily recognisable – in fact they are just a bit too familiar. Their technology has certainly advanced though.
While the story is self-contained to a degree and Nelder does provide backstory and explanations both at the beginning of the book and throughout, I do think that it helps to have read the other books in the series first as the relationships between characters rely on some knowledge of who the character is and how they came into being. Most of the characters in the story are not fully human and have interesting origin stories that add to the richness of the story. Also there is a well-developed fictional universe and knowing it and some of the conflicts in more detail than a cursory overview adds significantly to the enjoyment of this latest instalment which begins with a cliffhanger from the previous book, Kepler’s Son. Kepler 20, the solar system which our protagonists have flown to earth from, is a real planetary system discovered relatively recently by NASA’s Kepler mission, and although it is not featured much in Vanished Earth it is an important aspect of the Flying Crooked series and it helps to know and understand the full backstory of how the original humans, Em and Gaston, crash-landed on the long running dispute between humans and the purists, and the role played by the Keps, Keeps, the cross-species Adeh, Em and Gaston’s son, and his no longer imaginary friends.
Nelder’s world building is excellent and his scientific capability is very clear. Everything flows smoothly and makes perfect sense, even when it involves the wryly sardonic artificial intelligence, Can, whose witty missives are no longer quite as futuristic as it was in books 1-3 given the speed at which AI is developing, quantum displacement technology (the “pinch”), or turbojets that are able to descend into Jupiter:
Adah’s head swam with the swirling gases below. Many Von Karman vortices filled the screen in red, green and yellow hues but all the rainbow colours were stirred into the artist’s palette. As they descended towards them, he was reminded of kaleidoscopes he had as a kid where the fractured stained-glass window patterns repeated. (16)
As the example above shows, there is a beauty to Nelder’s settings that recalls the best in classic sci-fi. The imagery evokes Kubrick (no descent into Jupiter can escape 2001: A Space Odyssey visuals), but also a feel for the metaphor and the way language can evoke both scene and emotion:
The setting sun coloured the sky like a riot of marmalades. She dragged him to a halt to admire the view, a sky with a deeper blue overhead than their home planets, alien to them yet beautiful. (83)
One recurring and poignant theme is the cruelty of humans. Keps do not eat meat and Adeh is particularly concerned with the extensive carnivorism on Earth. From a Kep point of view, the way that humans “imprison and consume their fellow mammals” is alarming. This is exemplified by some of the unsavoury characters on Earth whose treatment of the waif-like Opi is all too familiar, though Opi’s increasing powers are handled with such delicacy it’s almost easy to miss the transition. I expect to see more of this in future books and there are hints about Opi’s role toward the latter half of the book – hopefully that’s not a spoiler.
Nelder doesn’t go too deeply into politics in Vanished Earth but an alien’s perspective of humanity is does subtly highlight our inherent flaws as well as the actual beauty of Earth and its recovery post-Anthropocene. It explores questions about the ethics of colonisation, the dangers of AI, and inter-species breeding and design. Though there are profound insights here, Vanished Earth remains light – a fun read with only hints of the darkness that provided the impetus for the Suppose We crew to leave in the first place. I expect one day we will be able to use Nelder’s pinch technology combined with advanced AI to get us out of a variety of perils. Until then, the Flying Crooked series will have to suffice. The fourth book will surely not be the final one as our AI narrator Can makes very clear: “Watch this space.”