Paperback: 464 pages
Publisher: HarperPerennial (3 Mar 2008)
Category(ies): Alternate History/Murder Mystery
Within the last 24 hours, this book won the World Science Fiction Society award (a.k.a. Hugo) for best novel of the year. It must be one of the least science fictional books to have been considered for that honour. And yet, it deserves its award, even though it's up against such great books as Charlie Stross's Halting State.
Like Jo Walton's Farthing, it's set in an alternative world, one where history took a slightly different path. And as in that novel, once the background is set, the actual content of the novel is then very much of a different genre, that of a murder mystery, though this one is more police detective as opposed to the country house murder of Farthing.
The historical divergence for this one is about 1948 - the Zionists tried to take Palestine, and failed. So, instead of the foundation of Israel in the Middle East, the great Jewish diaspora has regathered in Sitka, which is that sliver of Alaska almost detached from the rest of that state, sticking down the West Coast of British Columbia. Here, the US government has established an enclave where the Jewish people may stay, cutting timer and fishing salmon. But the grant is about to run out, and the inhabitants are making plans to move on, though few seem to know where.
In this mess, Meyer Landsman of the homicide department, discovers a neighbour shot through the head. Who this neighbour was, why he may have been shot, and various other questions will need to be answered. Or perhaps not, because the last thing that's needed when a regime change is about to occur is someone stirring stuff up.
I know neither Jewish culture, nor Alaska (though I count people from both among my friends). But I loved the depth of the setting. One of the joys of reading good writing is being introduced into a different culture from one's own, and passing within it as a native. Here, the setting is strongly authentic for all it's actually fiction. And though the reasons for the happenings here are very strange to my world-view, they make sense within that of the story. So, though this is a long way from many people's idea of what SF is, I strongly recommend it. It is, after all, this year's not-undeserved Hugo winner for best novel.