It’s always an interesting proposition when an author jumps to another genre. Will the elements of their successes in one venue parlay into equal success in another? Will the story be as entertaining as the previous works, despite a complete change of storytelling scenery, with different tropes and expectations? Readers of this blog are well aware that I’m decidedly more comfortable with fantasy novels, only branching into science fiction rarely. So when I heard that Michael J. Sullivan was using Kickstarter to produce a science fiction story, I was curious to see if my love for Sullivan’s work would extend to a story outside of the Riyria series. I’m happy to report that not only does Hollow World establish Sullivan as a force to be reckoned with in any genre he chooses to ply his talent to, it also is a prime example of one of the reasons speculative fiction is so important. Hollow World is an excellent and thought provoking novel that tackles big issues yet does so in such a way to allow the reader to draw their own conclusions once they reach the end of this thoughtful, entertaining and compelling science fiction murder mystery.
Hollow World is the story of Ellis Rogers. Ellis has just been given a death sentence. He has a terminal illness and has less than a year to live. Locked in a loveless marriage, and still grieving of the loss of his son, Rogers decides to take the biggest gamble of his life and attempts to travel forward in time to find a cure, using a time machine that he had previously assembled as an intellectual exercise in his garage. Even if the machine works, this journey can only be a one way trip, but with nothing left to loose, Ellis pulls the trigger on his reckless plan and finds himself thrown forward two thousand years into the future. What he finds there is a planet changed by energy crisis, climate change, and resource shortages. The surface of the planet has been reclaimed by Mother Nature with almost all traces of human inhabitation washed away by the passing of time. Even the human race is vastly changed, with no more disease, hunger, war, gender, sex, or even death. This new strain of the human race lives beneath the surface of the planet in a vast network of underground chambers that have been engineered into a veritable paradise. But all is not well; Ellis’ arrival coincides with a murder, the first anyone in Hollow World has ever seen. Along with his new friend, Pax, Ellis begins to explore his new environment while trying to solve the mysterious murders that seem to be following him. Will he solve the mystery in time, or will all of Hollow World be destroyed by forces that Ellis himself accidently unleashed on the seeming utopia.
Sullivan tackles big issues in this novel, with everything from religion, identity, homophobia, death, and love being explored as Ellis considers his place in this new world as well as the world he left behind for a chance at a new beginning. It’s not uncommon for fiction to explore social issues, but Sullivan manages to layer this story with so many complex themes without losing sight of the personal narrative of Ellis or the thriller elements that drive the plot. From here on out, when someone mocks me for reading speculative fiction and insists that such fantastic stories have no lasting value, I will be pointing them to Hollow World. This is a novel that has so much more going for it than pure entertainment value, though it has plenty of that.
Fans of Sullivan’s fantasy novels, will find that Sullivan’s gift for character is on full display in his first foray into science fiction. Ellis is definitely an every man whose past weighs heavily on not only his soul but his body as well. While Rogers is no warrior, he manages to get by on a mix of courage, conviction and luck. He’s a hero without sword or armor and I’m certain readers will find him easy to relate to and cheer for. But the real accomplishment is in the Sullivan’s handling of the supporting cast. Ellis’ companion, Pax, is a real treat, with his obvious compassion and desire to assert his own individuality in a society where conformity is the norm is a breath of fresh air and makes him an ideal guide as Ellis navigates his new environment. With the inhabitants of Hollow World all but indistinguishable from one another, Sullivan had his work cut out for him, but manages to infuse the characters with enough personality to make them all stand out as individuals.
Hollow World is in many ways a quieter novel than Sullivan’s other novel, with the action more spaced out, though there are certainly a tense section or two. But the real action is internal as Ellis contemplates his place in this new world and whether or not this world is any better than the one he left in the end. It is that contemplation of the human condition and the way Sullivan questions our assumptions about our society as a whole that makes this one of the best novels, I’ve read this year. If you are a fan of novels that leave you thinking about the world you live in and your place in it, or just a fan of character driven stories that aren’t afraid to take chances, then this is a book for you.