Ellis Rogers is an ordinary man who is about to embark on an extraordinary journey. All his life he has played it safe and done the right thing, but when faced with a terminal illness, he’s willing to take an insane gamble. He’s built a time machine in his garage, and if it works, he’ll face a world that challenges his understanding of what it means to be human, what it takes to love, and the cost of paradise. He could find more than a cure for his illness; he might find what everyone has been searching for since time began…but only if he can survive Hollow World.
When Michael J. Sullivan contacted me about reviewing his new SF novel Hollow World, I did a double-take. As I’d only been aware of him as a fantasy author, I was surprised that his newest publication would be a time-travelling SF novel. Still, the synopsis sounded fun and some of my favourite bloggers adore Sullivan’s writing, so I gladly accepted. And Hollow World wasn’t what I’d expected at all. There was an unexpected mystery at the heart of the narrative and an eloquent exploration of the nature of love, which made the time-travel element feel almost accidental.
Hollow World‘s main character is Ellis Rogers, a man in his late fifties with a somewhat conservative outlook on life, stuck in a marriage that has been deteriorating ever since the suicide of his son, for which Ellis still feels responsible. He’s gruff, but certainly not unsympathetic, even if some of his ideas are somewhat out of date. I really liked his development throughout the novel, which is one of self-reflection and discovery, which rather creeps up on him in this strange and alien world he lands in when he reaches the future. I loved how he follows his instincts when judging whether to trust certain of the Hollow-Worlders. It’s interesting how the feelings he struggles with in the future are echoes of those he struggled with in his own time. Most of his emotional development is sparked by Pax, an arbiter who is one of the first Hollow World inhabitants he meets. Ellis and Pax form an instant connection, which is difficult for Ellis to classify as a) Pax has no gender and no sex and b) to Ellis Pax is more male than female, and homosexuality is an emotionally charged subject for Ellis. His interpretation of their relationship goes from easy friendship to something more, a fact that freaks him out and simultaneously gives him peace. At the same time, Ellis is still trying to come to terms with leaving behind all he knew in the past, grieving for a wife he hadn’t realised he still loved, for his best friend and for the son he lost decades ago. This makes for a heavy emotional mix and I like that Ellis is shown grieving and crying, instead of bottling it all up.
Ellis’ main connections in Hollow World are Pax and Alva. Pax is complex and despite looking the same as everyone around him, he is immediately recognizable, not just to Ellis, but to the reader as well. His vox, a house AI who serves as communication device, butler, cook and general secretary, is called Alva and I loved her. She is easily the funniest of all the characters and her sass just made me smile every time she hit the page. Most of the identical Hollow-Worlders felt interchangeable except Yal the cook, Pax’s caretaker Vin, and Cha, Pax’s doctor friend. The only other Hollow-Worlders that stood out to me were Sol and some of the older Geomancers, which perhaps isn’t as surprising as they’ve been around for so long and hadn’t moved as far away from humans such as us when they were born. This is reflected not just in their appearance, but also in their characters and way of speaking. There is a sort of world-weary, wry humour to them that I enjoyed.
Hollow World itself is a fascinating place. Humanity, through the Institute for Species Preservation, or ISP, and the invention of the Three Miracles (almost inexhaustible energy cells, portal technology, and replicator technology,) has created something that is quite close to utopia. This is very much the future as it was often portrayed in the Golden Age; admittedly no jet packs, but there are teleportation devices, replicators, AI butlers, and immortality—peace on earth and an end to war. I do wonder how the very long-lived keep from getting bored, something which Sullivan touches upon, both in the philosophy of the villainous Ren and in the motivations Ellis ascribes to the geomancers, but it’s never truly answered. These evolved humans have created an underground paradise, which in Ellis’ opinion is close to what Heaven must be like. Of course, utopia is an impossibility and thus it proves here.
The plot is interesting, though the foreshadowing of Ren’s true identity was somewhat transparent. I figured it out long before Ellis did. However, there were some interesting twists to the mystery and I really liked the climactic action scene. Sullivan’s writing makes for smooth reading and there are a lot fun geek and pop culture references. While slower-paced than most current SF, the pacing of Hollow World is even and well-balanced. While the mystery is resolved and the major story beats have all been played out, there remain plenty of loose threads and unexplored avenues for Sullivan to write more stories about Ellis, Pax, and Hollow World. In fact, in his Afterword Sullivan states he has plenty of ideas for further stories in this setting.
I very much enjoyed the time spent with Hollow World. It was an interesting setting and a touchingly emotional story. Hollow World is a story far more concerned with the social aspects of SF than cold, hard science. If you enjoy social science fiction, Hollow World might just be the ticket for you. Me, I’m hoping that Sullivan will return to Hollow World at some point and we will see more of Ellis and Pax in the future.
This book was provided for review by the author.