Mixing human drama and supernatural dangers in a cosmic environment, Vestiges is an exciting novel and the first of a trilogy which should be fascinating, as it skilfully plays with the rules of science fiction and fantasy. For her first novel Laurence Suhner strikes hard and again confirms the quality of L'Atalante's catalogue.
Note : 9 /10
Vast political implications, galactic distances, frantic exoticism in the contact with other forms of intelligence, an unexplored virgin world, complex characters, it all adds up to novels that are exceptional in their genre. Without doubt, this book will be shortlisted for every prize at the beginning of the literary year, and not just as ballast.
We have here a planet opera of a very high quality. Part hard science, the author uses scientific jargon that lends a credible tone to the story. No hyper-spaceships here - nor super-heroes or exotic technology (at least not for the humans). Laurence Suhner is also interested in the life of her characters, filling them out nicely, accomplishing this in a relaxed even slightly humorous way. A progressive invasion of the "mysterious" into a rational and scientific world. This block of ice (not for the faint-hearted) eats its way into your mind and body (in the best sense of the term) and never lets you go.
This trilogy (a first novel) is quite simply magnificent. The characters are manifestly real and the narrative superbly written and well-thought out.
575 pages is a bit daunting at first sight. And then you get into it and the mechanical fluidity of the writing makes it possible to fly along. In the first part of the Quantika trilogy, Laurence vigorously takes control in this planet opera, a mix of adventures in space around unexplored worlds, in the search for the vestiges of an ancient civilisation.
A portrait of the author:
As a young child, she told tales. As a school girl she had an aptitude for Physics. As a student she became an archaeologist, dividing her time between Egypt and prehistory. Grown up, she created celebrity clones, before getting noticed as a graphic book illustrator. She is currently a science fiction novelist. Have we forgotten anything? Oh yes, classical Indian music - she plays percussion... Born in Geneva, Laurence Suhner is many-layered like the planet Gemma in Vestiges. Quantika, triumphantly launched into orbit by the French publisher L'Atalante, is the first volume of a trilogy with fascinating themes and abundant ramifications. So, about Gemma: high frozen plateaus, criss-crossed by tracks of motorised vehicles, with ruins and jungle remains hidden beneath the ground. Around this celestial body colonised by Earth people orbits a giant artefact in the form of an arc, left by a radically different and terribly elusive civilisation.
We meet up with Laurence as she comes down from the cold: "I spent the last four winters in Valais, 1800 metres up, right in the mountains. That helped me describe the environment of this planet." Even if Vestiges runs on futuristic technologies and travel at 40% of the speed of light, the best place to write is a chalet. "I love the sea, I get ideas but I can't write there."
Yet Quantika owes its existence to the seaside ("I was on the Algarve, it was buzzing about in my brain") and includes a maritime dimension. Although to see it unfold we will have to wait for the third volume which is set on an oceanic planet not unlike Polynesia".
Let's get back to the reason you started writing.
The first stage: tall stories... "My father travelled a lot for his work. He would come back from South America and bring me back stuffed caimans or fake shrunken heads. I would go to school with a satchel full of these heads and make up a story. Or he would bring me back Amer-Indian garments and I would say that I had come from a tribe and my horse was waiting for me over there..." And then? "When I started to write and draw, all that stopped. I dreamed of settling in Amazonia, of a life totally out of the ordinary. That's why I chose science fiction. I can really let myself go, there are no limits..." When she was eight, Laurence created her first graphic book. At eleven, she started to write short stories. "There were ruins of dead civilisations, castles, teenagers up against mysterious circumstances. And the stories often finished up with aliens." Before becoming a professional writer, she took several detours. Physics: "I discovered it at secondary school; it was almost a mystic experience." Archaeology: "I loved translating ancient languages - the more complicated the better." Design: "Feeling I had to do something useful with my life, I studied industrial design after university. But this wasn't my vocation, it lacked a narrative aspect. So, finally I worked as a designer in the Miralab CGI studio. I created clones of real people, like Martina Hingis or Pete Sampras, for virtual reality programmes. As a sideline, I would draw..."
Illustration: how did that happen in such a busy life? "My mother was a fashion designer; she would always be giving me crayons to draw with." Not inclined to waste time, at 16 Laurence published her first graphic book album, mixing (why not?) reggae and science fiction. Others followed, with parallel reality stories and black magic, ancient amulets and time paradoxes. A Parisian editor launched her on to the international scene in 2002, with a new collection devoted to Agatha Christie. There would be no sequel. Fate struck her right arm. The first album in the series, The Secret of Chimneys was published from India to the UK. "The repercussions of an old car accident caught up with me, and my right arm was useless for illustrating. I did dedication sessions, but I was having more and more difficulty signing my name." What did you do? "I decided to make the best of it and start writing novels." Everything that Laurence likes is in Vestiges, from Indian music to multiculturalism (the heroine, called Ambre is Indo-Franco-Iranian), also recovering a lost memory, space-time foam ("that's the hard science side of the thing"), as well as brains whose radically different biology enables a hyper-advanced civilisation to be built on non-rational notions. Better than ours? "Of course not..."