Book review: Mercury Rising by R.W.W. Greene

(courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

The idea of alternative timelines where the less than ideal outcomes of our reality find an altogether, hopefully better (though not always) realisation is a seductive one.

As a species, humanity is a sucker for the possibility of things being different elsewhere, and it’s why ideas like the multiverse are so compelling because they suggest that somewhere things aren’t the same as here.

While the beguiling brilliance of R.W.W. Greene’s Mercury Rising isn’t set in the multiverse as such, it does occupy a timeline where major world events have played out quite differently to the timeline we all know, and if not love, at least tolerate.

In this reality, humanity encounters alien invaders screaming in from Mercury in 1961, with only the combined might of hero astronaut Jet Carson and the Eagle Seven, and the Soviets, thwarting a potential occupation of our planet.

This unexpected extraterrestrial run-in reshapes the geopolitics of Earth as you might expect while also triggering an intense race to turbocharge space technology, a commitment which is so rapid and all-encompassing that by the 1980s, humanity is living and operating on the Moon, Mars and the outer reaches of our solar system.

So, quite a bit different to our reality but then, in all fairness, we don’t have aggressive aliens knocking at our door, so possibly we are ahead on points (although having reached no further than the moon in our peopled galactic endeavours, some spaceships and outer solar system faring may not be a bad thing).

“Brooklyn stood up. ‘Yeah, well … How many times we heard that since we got up here?’ He stretched, relishing the feel of clean clothes on clean skin. ‘Believe it when I see it.’ Feels different after talking to Sierra, though. Aliens disguised as people. He shook off a sudden chill.”

As alternate timelines go, the one in Mercury Rising is a doozy.

Spaceships are powered by Oppenheimer’s Atomic Engines, computers are growing ever more sophisticated, well ahead of our reality’s technological trajectory, and humanity is far more cooperative than is currently the case for us.

In this brave new world, or rather galaxy, Brooklyn Lamontagne, a small-time criminal in Queens, New York City is, like many people, simply trying to carve out some sort of living, one that will allow him to pay his single mum’s rent, and enjoy a little of what life has to offer.

For the majority of people, the aliens are not a day-to-day presence; in fact, they have kept such a low profile in the decades since the ’61 attack that there are even conspiracy theorists who wonder if the aliens are even real.

Several highly violent incidents suggest quite strongly that they are, but Brooklyn like many of his Earth brethren, simply want to live their lives as best they can while ignoring whatever might be lurking out in the dark planetary shadows of the cosmos.

That is, until a strange killer with a baseball bat and a yearning for a box of 8-track tapes ambushes him one night, sets him up on a murder rap, and forcing Brooklyn to choose between jail time and serving with the U.N.’s Earth Defense Forces after which our often rudderless young protagonist hopes to get his life back, such as it is (and really it’s nothing spectacular).

Brooklyn is our Everyman in this spectacularly imaginative tale which feels like one of those big screen serials from the Fifties, a picaresque story which sees him going from Earth to the Moon, out into space and to places so different to his old life in Queens that is he is forced to grow fast and embrace a humanity, wisdom and compassion he previously lacked (or which was nascent but not fully formed, squashed down by the grim realities of a life that was little more than barely getting by).

As protagonists go, Brooklyn is perfectly placed to be our window on this alien-studded alternate timeline – he may not be fully aware of what’s going on around at first (but then neither are many others) but for all his wrong side of the law missteps early in life, he is at heart a decent, capable, loyal and loving person who blossoms and grows as the story progresses.

And oh, how it progresses!

Greene takes us on a totally wild speculative trip into what a 1970s Earth would look like if aliens were real, spaceships and galactic travel was a thing and we had to grapple with not being even remotely alone in a universe, which turns out to be a whole lot more crowded than anyone expected.

He manages, with pop culture reference-peppered writing (ABBA doing concerts on the moon!) and an ability to craft fully-formed, well-rounded characters who feel completely real in a larger-than-life context, to make the extraordinary feel it’s all completely believable.

“Brooklyn felt a surge of dizziness and everything in his eyesight seemed to vibrate. The lights on the poles left streaks in the air. Real-life Aliens and Astronauts. Weird times. Long, long way from Queens. He rubbed his eyes. ‘Let’s do this.'”

With twists and turns that more than manage to hold their own and justify their place in the narrative – you’ll realise what an accomplishment this is when you witness some of the weird and wonderful places Greene takes Brooklyn, and by extension, the whole human race – Mercury Rising is a ride abolsutely worth taking.

Pulsating with a visionary humanity that enriches an already lively storyline, Mercury Rising does what all good alternate history should do by pointing a thoughtfully accusatory finger at many of the issues that blight our own timeline from poverty and crime to pointlessly nihilistic geopolitics, all of which lessen our world and which are doing no favours to the alternate timeline either.

What really draws attention to the paucity of humanity that lies behind almost all of the issues that the novel places in its nuanced spotlight is the existence of the aliens, a threat (or opportunity?) so palpable and ever present that it should concentrate everyone to one task and one task only -to keep humanity alive and the Earth in our hands.

That it doesn’t, or at least not to the extent that it needs to, adds a sparklingly intense social commentary to Mercury Rising which is full of action and adventure, but also a real thoughtfulness about who we are as a species and who we could be if only we had the vision to pursue it.

Greene has hit one, not only out of the park but all the way to Jupiter and then back to Venus, with Mercury Rising, a novel possessed of an OTT premise that nevertheless manages to feel real and grounded, fantastically alive and with a likeably fallible protagonist at its heart whose growth and change is testament to what is possible in any timeline if only we open out hearts to it.

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