Beneath the World, A Sea by Chris Beckett

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Beneath the World, A Sea by Chris Beckett

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Stephen Leach
Reviewed by Stephen Leach
Summary: Contemplative and intriguing science fiction set in a mysterious South American forest. Immersive and convincing but takes its time to really get going.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: April 2019
Publisher: Corvus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1786491558

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South America, 1990. Ben Ronson, a British police officer, arrives in a mysterious forest to investigate a spate of killings of Duendes. These silent, vaguely humanoid creatures - with long limbs and black button eyes - have a strange psychic effect on people, unleashing the subconscious and exposing their innermost thoughts and fears. Ben becomes fascinated by the Duendes, but the closer he gets, the more he begins to unravel, with terrifying results...

South America has a treasure trove of lore and legends, and yet somehow it's never really been a major setting for supernatural fiction. But maybe this book will change that. Something about the setting just works; the mysterious delta, cut off from the rest of the world and poorly understood, feels exactly like the sort of place for unknown and undiscovered phenomena. Once you get past the slightly absurd and rather paternalistic idea of a British policeman arriving there to sort things out, the conceit actually makes an odd sort of sense. The story is tinged with a touch of imperialistic guilt – what right does a Brit have to blunder into the jungle and tell the natives how to live? – and the fundamental question of whether, since the Duendes aren't human, they can even be considered a people at all. The book raises a lot of interesting questions and, like a lot of good sci-fi, it's as much concerned with people as it is with supernatural elements; it's as much a study of the relationships and feelings of the people in the delta as it is a study of the strange inhuman creatures inhabiting it.

It's almost painfully slow, though. Halfway in I still felt as though the plot hadn't really gotten started. Events do quicken eventually, but this isn't an action-packed romp by any means. But that's a strength of the book in a sense; this is a contemplative book. The author describes it as a new direction for himself, and I find myself wanting to read his other works to see how they compare. Beckett's writing has an almost anthropological quality to it: there's so many little moments that illustrate human behaviour perfectly. And at its heart, Beneath the World A Sea is a story all about human behaviour – about the things you'll do when you're pushed by stress or fear. Here, it's the psychedelic quality of the delta, where memories don't last and emotions go haywire, that's the trigger. The truly intriguing question is what sort of people would choose to come there…

Another quiet, slow, contemplative book with a touch of the fantastical I reviewed a long while ago was Black Dog Summer by Miranda Sherry – give it a go if you liked this book. Ken Liu's Invisible Planets, too, is a collection of great science-fiction guaranteed to expand the mind.

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