This is a teasing, tantalizing book. Part of that may be because I’m not familiar with the conventions of the genre, but I know enough about it to sense that in this instance, the writer may actually be testing and stretching those conventions. The sci-fi essentials are there – space travel, extra-terrestrial entities, a close dependence of humans on machines and a society which has clearly evolved from some of the processes and preoccupations that prevail today. But there’s also a deliberate confusion, passages which challenge accepted social and moral behaviours, a reluctance to ascribe qualities such as heroism and treachery to exclusive sources. Motives and reciprocations overlap, acts of simple human jealousy sit among and are mixed with threats of potentially cataclysmic conflicts which may only be resolved by the premeditated creation of black holes. As Mr Spock might say, ‘It’s sci-fi, Jim, but not as we know it’. In fact, the impression I’ve retained from my reading of it is that it is so layered with events whose significance operates simultaneously at many separate levels that it might need several readings to understand all the author’s intended themes.
It’s certainly unconventional in its form and narrative techniques. Others have compared it with the epistolary novel, but examples of that genre seldom offered as many distinct viewpoints as this author exploits to convey the different layers and elements of his story. His principals share their interior and exterior monologues with us and are, in turn, probed and ‘explained’ by the advanced alien civilisation which has access to their rational and irrational thought processes. Between their diary entries and written interpersonal communications are extracts from databases of the type into which Wikipedia will evolve, written reports of serving officers, records of thought processes infiltrated and interpreted by the alien consciousness, items of correspondence. In other words, there are many voices, many opinions, many narrators. And this, too, must be a deliberate choice of the author. We’re told so often that a writer must show and not tell and (in my opinion, bizarrely), there’s a reluctance to grant authors omniscience. The creation is theirs, everything in it is a product of their own thinking so of course they’re omniscient. The trick, the skill, is to parcel up that omniscience in such a way that it doesn’t intrude. The technique adopted here is to assign different aspects of the narrative – the internal fears and feelings of characters, the precise nature of the prevailing social conditions and structures, the policies driving the various factions, the actual events which occur and provoke reactions and plot developments – to appropriate sources: diaries, reports, conversations, internal monologues. Yes, it means the point of view changes repeatedly, but the change is signalled in a clear, bold headline immediately before the relevant passage so there should be no confusion in the reader’s mind about where the information’s coming from. The overall impression is of a carefully designed mosaic representing the preoccupations, sensations and perceptions of the story’s principals.
I know I’m focusing on the formal aspects of the book, but that’s because I found them intriguing. I’m also reluctant to summarise the plot because I don’t want to risk any spoilers and I think in any case that just ‘telling the story’ would do the novel an injustice. There aren’t any goodies and baddies in the conventional sense. The aliens, The Prognosticate, have infiltrated humanity and helped it to what, on the surface at least, seems to be a utopian peace. Illness has been banished, our despoliation of the earth has been reversed and there are logical developments of familiar processes. The internet has become internets, nanotechnology has solved most of the problems which prevail today, religions have been superseded but, perhaps as a result of all this, life seems dull, too easy, featureless. One of the elements which may disturb some readers is one character’s need for pain, an extreme masochism which makes excruciating demands. Objectively, in this monotonously perfect existence, it is perhaps a signal of the forces that have been suppressed but not extinguished. And, indeed, there are those who don’t accept the pacifying intrusions of the aliens. They are the Orphanage, led by a Mother, and they have not rejected the old Gods, so conflict is still a factor in this utopia – at private and public levels.
And, in the end, perhaps that is the book’s main message. The couple at its centre enjoy a relationship of domination and submission, the themes of subjugation and control are constantly restated. Maybe we’re not made for peaceful, unthreatened existence. We need to fight, to feel, to be challenged. But that ‘perhaps’ and that ‘maybe’ are important. The book’s teasing complexities may have other significations, different interpretations. What does seem clear is that the author has not taken an easy route here, but he has created a totally absorbing, well-constructed, poetic examination of the interplay of very mysterious forces.