As soon as I heard about Hollow World I jumped on the bandwagon. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I love it when authors take a left turn and tries something absolutely new and different. Michael J. Sullivan is known for his epic fantasy, so a time travel/futuristic sci-fi is absolutely different than his usual work. He had my attention.
The thing is, despite the fact that this is an absolutely different genre than Sullivan fans will expect, there are still some qualities here that are owned by the author. For example, Sullivan excels at telling an action-packed story set in a huge world that is slowly expanded upon in the periphery of the story. Also, he does a great job at developing characters you can really cling to. And all of that is evident in Hollow World.
Hollow World tells the story of Ellis, an everyman in every sense of the word. He’s into middle age, he’s got a wife, and he’s looking at retirement. He also has a chronic heart condition he doesn’t want to tell his family about. That last little touch adds to his character in a lot of surprising ways. For example, with the chronic heart condition, Ellis truly has an attitude of “this is my last shot at life, so let me live it.” He is willing to take chances that he otherwise wouldn’t.
This novel has a lot of heart, and it also has plenty of adventure (signature Sullivan-style). However, it has a lot of deeper notes. Sullivan does a great job at exploring issues that will strike most of us at our hearts. What makes us human? How do we connect with each other? What is our place on this giant rock hurtling through space? Ellis’s status as a true outsider in a world where exterior individuality has basically been washed out makes his search for these answers that much more poignant. The fact that Ellis could be your next door neighbor, or any of us, makes all of these themes that Sullivan is playing with strike home. And he does all of this without losing that fun, fast, furious, and adventurous edge I absolutely love him for.
Ellis isn’t the only character in Hollow World. Readers will also become familiar with Pax and Alva. While Pax outwardly looks exactly like everyone else, he is truly individual. It’s interesting how, once Sullivan takes away all outward identifying features, the personality traits become so much more important. In a lot of ways, that’s what Sullivan is doing throughout the novel. He’s stripping everyone and everything down to their bare roots and making readers look at the core of who we are and how our actions affect each other. He does it with skill and finesse, and while I’d classify this as social science fiction, he never really hits readers over the head with it. Into this mix is an AI that became a person and independent personality in its own right, along with some memorable secondary characters.
The interesting thing about Hollow World is that it is told in a sort of old school sci-fi style, like an Orwellian time-travel tale with a mystery at its core. I never really thought I’d be into that sort of thing, and in all honesty, I’m not. That being said, Sullivan pulls it off. Hollow World is intensely readable, and the old-school feel of it felt true to the characters and the story Sullivan is trying to tell. This novel isn’t about flash and fancy gizmos and gadgets. It’s about humanity, and the things inside us that make us human and interconnected. The flash and tech would obscure the core messages, and I appreciate Sullivan for keeping it fairly simple when simple is pretty hard to obtain in sci-fi.
Hollow World is very well done. The mystery became a little transparent close to the end, but I didn’t care because everything else in the book was working so well. Hollow World is packed full of emotion and adventure and filled with characters that become part of you. It will make you think, but the fast pace and simplistic mannerisms also make this an easy novel to devour surprisingly fast. It will stick with you after you’re finished with it. I, for one, sincerely hope Sullivan revisits this world.