The Return of The Incredible Exploding Man by Dave Hutchinson

I would like to thank Rebellion for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Rebellion

Published -Out Now

Price - £7.99 paperback £5.99 Kindle eBook

When Alex Dolan is hired by multibillionaire Stanislaw Clayton to write about the Sioux Crossing Supercollider; it seems like a dream job. Then something goes wrong at the site. Very wrong. After the incident, Dolan finds himself changed, and the only one who can stop the disaster from destroying us all.

Like cats the naming of books can be a serious matter. Titles shape our expectations of the story to come be they a short snappy thriller; a flowery literary tale or gory punchy horror. With The Return of The Incredible Exploding Man Dave Hutchinson suggests we are in for a B Movie SF ride and then cunningly manages to both subvert our expectations of the tale being told and yet still delivering on that title’s promise just not quite how I expected it.

Our lead character is Alex Dolan an experienced Scottish science journalist trying to eke out a living while the US print journalism scene continues to shrink and die.  The unpaid bill reminders are coming through the door but then comes the offer of a job working for one of the richest men in the world. Stan Clayton is a very successful tech baron who has decided to create the next version of the Large Hadron Collider.  Bigger and even more powerful this device is going to even further examine what reality is made of. Of course, a huge and expensive project like that is always going to be having some notable set up issues which then attracts the wrong media headlines and after being mocked on Saturday Night Live he decides he needs someone to tell his side of the story. Alex is invited to live in the town of Sioux Crossing where the collider resides; he is paid to publish some magazine articles and ultimately a book – he can be open and honest but must deliver a ‘sensawunda’. Alex reluctantly agrees and then starts to see the positive and negative impacts of Clayton’s investment on the town and eventually himself.  

On the surface Sioux Crossing is a glowing endorsement for capitalism’s regeneration of a decaying small town but it is also still home to the original inhabitants feeling squeezed out; academic infighting and despite that people who really care about pushing the bounds of science. Alex himself also is seen as way inside for others to finally work out what Clayton may be up to. And then there are the sparks and angels that people keep claiming that they have seen over the years.

So generally, this feels much more a SF thriller, but it meanders into many other places. Clayton is not an evil genius looking to take over the world – but he is someone for whom money solves all problems from phone signals to troublesome employees. Need a site then let’s buy a town; then let’s replace all the buildings; lets fill it with my own people.  It’s less evil and much more a very blinkered worldview that in the age of tech barons launching twitter wars and acting like small countries feels very true. But at the same time the actual scientists are genuinely keen to explore the universe with their new toy and it’s not a novel saying we are going too far and indeed rejects many myths of black holes (to some extent). But Hutchinson does throw in how scientists can be prickly when called on bad behaviour and that uneasy relationship between pure science and government military research where beautiful science is often just seen as shinier way to kill people. 

Into this walks our main lead Alex – a middle-aged, balding slightly lost soul trying to find his place in life.  He definitely doesn’t want to play to Stan’s tune but at the same time he’s emotionally captured by the people he meets and then also pressganged into staying by British Intelligence! Alex is however fundamentally a decent and also humorous man. He forms relationships with many in the town from Wendy the much smarter and more practical scientist and the cranky elderly neighbour Ralph and his farting dog Homer. The novel mixes pathos as in particular these two men discuss their lives and where they’re going and there is a lot of banter between the two which is just joyful.  It’s the type of snark you could easily see in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War novel but here just in someone’s living room rather than on a spaceship.

That’s for me the most interesting part of the novel.  It’s a low speed thriller for much of it.  Alex is not immediately sucked into a mystery he’s just exploring how this place works. And slowly weird thigs happen – mysterious figures at the door; sparks in a room and laptops being hacked and then events get larger. These give Alex a chance to decide who’s side he is on and he’s refreshingly not selfish or that intrepid he just would like to do the decent thing. That leads to the finale of the story where all we’ve seen goes 180 degrees into a very different type of story – one that makes sense with all we have seen but not one you would be expecting.  I think how much of that you accept will be the key to your enjoying the novel.  I am an unabashed fan of mixing up types of stories and creating something different which this delivers in spades but if you are more logically minded in your plots then you may be feeling like the rug has been pulled out from under you unfairly. My one reservation is that the finale has a lot to try and wrap up and the faster pace at the end does seem to leave some plot threads unexplained.  I’m hoping that this signals we will return to Alex’s new lifestyle in the future as I sense there could be some more tales to be told.

Following the very Le Carre style ‘Fractured Europe’ series that Hutchinson deservedly has received much acclaim for I was not sure what we would get in this novel.  It however actively tries to move away from spying and skulduggery but at the same time is still funny, perceptive about the state of the world and genuinely surprising in the directions it takes.  If this feels the type of slow burn SF thriller you have always wanted to read, then I would heartily recommend it.