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The Lost Art by Simon Morden
Review by Iain Emsley
David Fickling Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780385609647
Date: 05 July 2007 List Price £12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

Our man Iain Emsley snaffled a copy of this one. He describes it as "...a well written and intelligent take on the debate between religion and science..." and he's kindly reviewed it for us too elsewhere in this issue.

"For centuries the User remnant technology has been locked away. But is about to be unearthed, and the powers that will be unleashed may be beyond anybody's capacity to control."

Simon Morden's The Lost Art is a challenging yet ultimately rewarding young adult SF novel. Though written from a strong scientific position where rationality is the order of the day, it is not afraid to deal with the human consequences of technology. Publisher David Fickling is not an editor to shy away from handling books which deal with the major themes of the day, such as the debate between religion and science he should be congratulated for this editorial vision.

The Users' technology has set Earth back to the early Modern era with emerging engineering and science co-existing with a strong religious belief. Va, a monk in Russia, returns to his sacked monastery to find that twelve books have been stolen. Meeting up with Elenya, a princess who loves him, alas unrequitedly, he travels to Moscow to tell the Patriarch of the loss. Despite orders to stay behind, he steals away and travels across Europe and Africa searching for the books and looking for peace with himself.

Benzamir, a Watcher, lands in the Middle East also trying to discover the whereabouts of the books though he is aware of what they are and is also trying to prevent their use. His travels take him across North Africa where he discovers the plot behind the Kenyan king's attempt to collect the volumes.

Morden layers mythology and a knowledge of SF onto the world but never belabours the fact. Though he sets up a fine world which is reminiscent of Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt or Iain M Banks' Culture novels, he introduces the myths of the Grigori, the angelic Watchers from the apocrypha and Genesis, but also cleverly utilises Clarke's law - that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This is a book which may be read in a variety of ways, none of which are contradictory, but which stem from the humanist form of SF. Perhaps this is where the real strength in the discourse lies: there is no soap box from which Morden screams that either science or religion are best (he is an astronomer by trade) - a rarity in the current debate. He presents certain options and lets the reader decide.

Though I'd love to present the book as perfect it does suffer from jumping around in terms of plot and travel plans. Morden develops the characters' back stories elegantly and presents them in small infodumps, but he also jumps characters from one setting to another. Its only a small blemish but it still jars.

The Lost Art is a sensible novel, dealing with the ways in which belief makes the world, though ultimately it is human action which matters. Morden is clearly a writer to watch.

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