Book review: A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

If you have ever suspected that humanity is a pawn in some great galactic game of brinkmanship, then you will love the very idea of a book like the superlatively good A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel.

In this tightly told story, which brims with as much humanity as it does realpolitik and espionage on a huge and enduring scale, we meet nineteen-year-old Mia and her mother Sara, the most recent two people in a long line that goes back to thousands of years.

Their mission is essentially to save humanity from itself, and goodness knows we need a considerable amount of saving, with their mantra being “Always run. Never fight. Preserve the knowledge. Survive at all costs. Take them to the stars.”, a guiding set of principles that sees Mia and her mum fulfilling the role of nomads fated by their birth into a long-established order to give up what they want for the greater human good.

But what if, like Mia, you begin to question why the hell it is you’re doing what you’re doing?

It’s a treasonous thought and certainly Mia herself often pushes it right back down from whence it came for fear it could derail everything she has ever know and believed, but authenticity and a driving need to ask questions and know the truth cannot be denied and it soon becomes apparent to the young upholder of a mysterious cause not even she fully understands that this is one impelling line of reasoning that cannot be stopped in its restless tracks.

“I would trade places right now if it meant I could be normal. I can’t be with anyone. I can’t get close. I’m alone.

Maybe I could live in the fantasy. Forget the rules, forget everything. I didn’t choose this life. Someone chose it for me, even if that someone was me. … Maybe I’m losing my mind.” (P. 51)

Mia’s need to be true to herself, a self that, by the way, exists in a shadowy place where its only definition has been the mantra and nothing but the mantra, soon becomes all-consuming which is a touch problematic when her initial 1945 mission to ensure that missile creating genius, Wernher von Braun, who has seemed perfectly happy to help the Nazis realise their darkly military goals, goes to work for the Americans, soon begets a competing need to gift the Soviets their own missile and spacefaring program.

These missions, years apart, all have the same intent – to push and push and push humanity to save itself from a fate that extends far beyond its predilection for war, though that it damaging enough in and of itself, one which has much to do with the mess that we are making of the planet.

We are never entirely sure exactly who Mia and Sara, or their murderous pursuers, simply known as the Tracker, are but it is intimated they are not entirely human and may have been tasked by a power beyond our solar system with their mission.

Whatever the truth of their ultimate identity and yes, it is intriguing, what makes the brilliantly-realised speculative fiction of A History of What Comes Next such a compelling and fascinating read is the way it zeroes in on what it means to be human, to be committed to a cause and to then question that cause?

It is that a traitorous move or is it the ultimate sign of liberating humanity, the kind of action that all of us should undertake in lieu of being unquestioning sheep in a blandly conformist system?

Sylvain Neuvel (image courtesy official Sylvain Neuvel Twitter account)

It depends on who you ask with Mia and Sara caught, naturally enough, on opposing sides of the debate.

Not that there really is a debate, not in the world of unthinking millennia-long missions, self-serving geopolitics or suffocating familial relations, where individualism is seen less as a blessing than a fatal weakness.

While A History of What Comes Next concerns itself with a raft of major 20th century over the course of its running time from 1945 to 1961 as it moves between post-war Germany, USA and the USSR, each with their own stories but scarily similar objectives, what really gives this history-rich novel its beating heart is the way in which Neuvel concentrates on the raw questioning humanity at the centre of the story.

History is after all a story of humanity’s search for the good and the bad and both are very much in evidence in a book that manages to be breathtakingly, thrillingly expansive but also deeply, intimately emotionally resonant.

It’s an impressive balancing act that the author pulls off with aplomb, realising that while historical facts are fascinating – so fascinating in fact that he includes almost 20 pages of further reading at the end of the novel (along with a playlist that includes every song assigned to each chapter) – they need humanity to really make them burst alive and affect you in some way.

“Back in Moscow, there were these crooked houses across from Billie’s They were old—both were built at the turn of the eighteenth century. Whoever owned them clearly didn’t have the money or the will to fix them, and they were slowly falling apart. Their foundations were sinking, and both houses would have collapsed, should have, really, if not for the fact that they were leaning on each other just the right way. Billie said they had been like that for decades. That is what we are. Mother and I, two broken things in a complete state of disrepair, leaning on one another. We keep each other alive. For now that will have to be enough.” (P. 243)

Reading A History of What Comes Next is immensely pleasurable because it remembers that our flawed humanity is at the heart of everything we do, even if we might not be fully human as Mia begins to suspect (the truth is revealed in the final act is a way that is both pragmatically satisfying and richly poetic) and that it powers everything last act on planet earth.

As we are swept into an enthralling tale of realpolitik run amuck and violence and coercion as instruments of both the progress of good and evil agendas, we come again and again up against the fact that every last historical fact, every great sweeping movement that defines us as a people and every last epochal high and low point has the thumbprint of people press firmly into it.

In Neuvel’s expertly empathetic hands, these thumbprints are given room to breathe, to express themselves and to infuse the already invigorating storyline with a humanistic richness that elevates A History of What Comes Next beyond a speculative alternate take on the history of our time (which is fastidiously researched and informed as the “further reading” section makes rewardingly and fulsomely clear), though if that’s all the book was is would be a superb read still.

A History of What Comes Next is one of those rare pieces of speculative fiction that doesn’t just wonder what if or what else, but also asks “why” in ways that will delight and surprise you, thrill and excite you but mostly get you thinking about whether anything is worth pursuing of the only way to yield to it is with unthinking obedience, and whether being true to yourself can be balanced with greater needs beyond your small world and happiness can be yours in ways that might have eluded those who came before you.

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