Every now and then this thing will happen whereby a traditionally literary-realist writer will publish a decidedly genred work, and all hell breaks loose in the SFF community. Some genre fans will whine that the writer is merely appropriating Science Fiction as window dressing in order to make-cool an otherwise naturalistic narrative. Others will complain that the writer hasn’t “earned it”; how can they write compelling genre if they’ve not spent years steeping themselves in the history of said genre? And inevitably people get pissed when mainstream literary journalists who don’t know what they’re talking about praise a work that deploys tired and clichéd genre tropes because they simply don’t know that what they’re praising are tired and clichéd genre tropes etc. etc.
I try not to engage with this kinda stuff. Partly because it smacks of gatekeeping (fuck anybody who says you need to have read certain books or think certain things in order to take part). Partly because SFF is only going to shrivel and die if we don’t encourage writers from diverse places to join in. But mostly because I believe that huge swathes of genre writing have a quality-of-prose problem, and could learn a thing or two by engaging with different literary heritages. Hell, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant was the subject of this kind of community outrage last summer, but it’s the best Fantasy novel I’ve read in years. American poet Marly Youmans’ Thaliad might be the best post-apocalyptic book I’ve ever read. Neither of these writers come from traditional genre backgrounds, but they’ve shown up and produced dazzling works nonetheless.
However. However, while I am generally wary of perpetuating this eye-rolling “non-SF writer trying to do SF and failing” stereotype, there are times when this really is what’s going on, and Iain Pears’ Arcadia just smacks of it. The SF-nal tropes this book deploys really are tired clichés. Both its far-future and its Fantasy settings would have seemed out of date decades ago, and – at risk of becoming the sort of genre fan I was just criticising – Arcadia has a certain tonal smugness about it that really rubbed me up the wrong way; the book seems to think it’s being much more original and experimental than it really is. This is a feeling I partly gleamed from the novel itself, and partly from all the paratextual marketing gumpf that’s been surrounding it for months. All this could be forgiven if Arcadia had a depth of characterisation or a quality of prose capable of out-shining its otherwise tepid ideas, but unfortunately, it just doesn’t.
I will say this though: Arcadia is a structural masterpiece. The novel’s central idea is that time isn’t linear, it’s only our limited human perception that makes it seem so. Events in the future can alter events in the past. The past can change, the future isn’t certain, and the present is just as unstable.
Arcadia’s most successful element is the way its structure perfectly encapsulates this idea. The book flits, non-chronologically, between three different timelines, and it’s not uncommon for something to happen in the future timeline that influences and changes stuff going on in the past. Or vice versa. To really see this in action, you can download an app (not kidding…) which will provide you with different “paths” through the novel. You can read different chapters in different orders and it all still makes sense, hence reinforcing the book’s thematic concern for the non-linearity of cause and effect. It’s all very intricate. Every decision a character makes has a wider significance in the timeline. It’s very modern, too, and could probably be described as a novelistic attempt at the much-lauded videogame principle of “ludonarrative”, that is: the narrative generated by the different ways the reader (/player) can interact with a text. God knows how long it took to plot the whole thing. It’s very, very clever.
But clever structure is all that Arcadia is. And so much is lost in the service of being clever. Imagine an architect has designed a staggeringly impressive and convoluted building; weird geometry all folding in on itself, it’s self-supporting and will collapse if you remove any one part. But then imagine that this building is made from the dullest, most boring and grey materials imaginable. That should give you some idea of what Arcadia is like.
At 600 pages it’s also stodgy as hell. It’s very repetitive, which I’m convinced is a consequence of Pears’ decision to let the reader approach the book’s chapters in different combinations: he has to repeat the same info over and over in case the mid-way point for one reader is the entry point for another (for the record, I read it in the traditional, front-to-back kinda way). And although I like the idea that events in the story have consequences for the structure of the book, it nonetheless requires such a level of narrative engineering as to make large chunks of the novel seem contrived.
By the end of Arcadia, I definitely got the feeling that major plot events were happening more in service to the novel’s structure, than in service to any of its characters and their motivations.
The future time-line is set in a quasi-dystopian, climate-changed UK that’s ruled by mega corporations. It’s a conform-or-die sort of place, where everything is geared towards profit, the private ownership of ideas, and generally being nasty to one another. It’s really, really bog-standard SF stuff (the biggest, richest, meanest bigwig is called “Oldmanter”, which is on-the-nose even for my tastes), and it’s so thinly drawn that I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be visualising half the time. A genius scientist called Angela Meerson has invented a machine that opens portals to parallel universes, but the big bad corporation guys want to grab this for themselves in order to mine those other universes for raw materials, and make big buckaroos.
(Thought: if the mega corporations could strip other universes for coal or whatever, wouldn’t such a HUGE influx of minerals actually hyper-inflate the markets and therefore massively devalue those materials, and hence ruin the potential to profit from them? I guess if only one group controls access then they could still make their moneys, but once the stuff is out there, how do they control the secondary markets? etc….)
Angela is my favourite character; idiosyncratic, witty, and borderline sociopathic in her devotion to science. She doesn’t want her ideas stolen, so she destroys her notes, and uses her machine to send herself into another universe. However, Angela’s understanding of physics is incorrect; her invention is actually a time machine, and, instead of another universe, it sends he back to 1960s Oxford, the second of the book’s 3 timelines.
The Oxford chapters are, by far, the best in the book, perhaps indicating that when he’s not ventriloquising tired genre settings, Iain Pears can write compelling characters and descriptive prose. These chapters are chiefly concerned with an aging English Literature professor called Henry Lytten, and a local schoolgirl called Rosie. One of Henry’s subplots is actually a half-way decent cold war spy story; it’s a tad ancillary to the wider goings-on of the novel, but is nonetheless good fun (I’d be up for reading a cold war thriller starring an old Shakespeare scholar!).
Henry is also a writer, working on a Fantasy novel set in the imagined realm of “Anterworld”, with the eventual goal of creating a society that fully functions without any gaps or inconsistencies. He wants the world of his novel to “work”. I have a slight theoretical problem with this, as I think it misunderstands the nature of worldbuilding and the ways in which texts relate to anything real: characters and worlds don’t consist of anything more than what’s on the page: the presence of boats in a novel may imply the presence of ship-builders in the fictional universe, but convoluted histories and meticulous attention to detail doesn’t make a text any more “real” or “stable” than any other. Hamlet is nothing more than the words he speaks etc.
Anyway, Angela learns about Henry’s “Anterworld”, and, attracted by its level of social realism (and hence “stability”) she uses it as a blueprint to test a new machine. Basically, Angela creates “Anterworld”, not as simulation, but real, living universe.
How exactly Angela “makes” Anterworld from Henry’s scrappy notes isn’t at all clear, and this speaks to a wider problem with the book’s narrative style. Large chunks of description have a definite “Hard Science” feel to them, especially when it waffles on about creating other universes and how cause and effect relate to one another. But elsewhere the book is remarkably twee. Angela’s machine is capable of creating, holding and sustaining an entire working universe and altering the course of human history, but, being trapped in the 1960s, she’s forced to make do with materials of the period:
I would have used refined aluminium, but I had to use aluminium foil in its place. Instead of sheets of pure graphite, I used lead pencils and old newspapers.
She makes her universe-generating machine out of tin foil and pencils. And controls it with pot and pans:
The kettle sets the year and month, the saucepans fix the day and hour and the two tea mugs set the location.
While this stuff kinda matches the eccentricity of Angela’s character, it’s just too much kitsch, and in a novel very much concerned with how things work, it’s starts to feel silly.
Like the future time period, the third of the book’s settings, Anterworld, is likewise run-of-the-mill genre stuff. The phrase “standard fantasy setting” should tell you everything you need to know about it. The schoolgirl I mentioned earlier, Rosie, stumbles upon the doorway to Anterworld, and wanders inside. Here she becomes embroiled in an incredibly boring story about a contested lordship, she falls in love with a Robin Hood figure, and eventually becomes an important figure in the mythology of the world.
The Anterworld sections, then, are simultaneously both intriguing and dull. The way it interacts with 1960s Oxford and the far future timeline are fascinating, and showcases the cleverness of Pears’ convoluted structure. But unfortunately the majority of the Anterworld stuff is just bland, with nothing to set it apart from any other feudal fantasy. Given the urgency of the futuristic stuff, and the intrigue of the 1960s spy drama, I struggled to find any reason why I should care which deposed lord has the most genuine claim to the contested lands. Far too much of Arcadia is given-over to these dull feudal politics, most of which turns out to be just scene-setting for a somewhat predictable late-novel twist.
The girl who wanders into Anterworld Rosie, is equally inconsistent. In abstraction she’s great, a slightly precocious, adventure-loving loner. She’s witty, loyal, and takes no shit from anyone. On the page, however, Rosie is problematic. I think she too-willingly abandons her previous life in favour of staying in Anterworld. Her level-headedness and intelligence seems to evaporate in the face of her love interest, which is a disappointing trait to find in a character set-up to be independent and strong-willed. Rosie begins the novel as a promisingly contrarian young girl, but ends the book embracing and defending the traditional gender roles that the story forces upon her. There were several passages towards the end of Rosie’s story where I almost threw the book across the room.
Large sections of Rosie’s dialogue are also very odd. This is what Iain Pears thinks fifteen-year-old girls sound like:
“You speak with defiance. That is not unattractive. Indeed, I am sure that any woman would find it beguiling, even hard to resist. Almost impossible, I would say. Until she considers this: what trust can be put into your words?”
Rosie’s age results in some awkward reading, too. Her (underage) marriage in Anterworld is a key part of her story, and there’s a suggestion of underage sex as well, but Iain Pears takes great pains to creepily remind us, again and again, that, as Anterworld is a feudal-level society, this is all fine. Rosie is old, in fact, not to be married (apparently). Coupled with copious references to Rosie’s physical beauty, it’s all a bit uncomfortable. Why didn’t Pears just make her a year older and circumvent having to do this? It reminds me a bit too much of:
And so it goes on and on. I admire the structural ambition of Arcadia, as well as its thematic interest in narrative; focusing on the ways in which stories are changed and renewed in their re-telling is exactly the sort of metanarrative playfulness I enjoy. But the whole thing is just so contrived, and as the complex construction that is the novel’s plotting builds and develops, it only feels more and more forced. Mid-way through the book, for example, Rosie is cloned when attempting to leave Anterworld. The narrative rationale behind Rosie’s cloning is that the machine detected a change about her person (she’s wearing some rings acquired in the fantasy land), and so created two versions of her; one that can leave Anterworld, and one which has to stay behind, “Your profile did not match the one you had when you went through […] It didn’t know whether to allow you back or block you, so it did both”. But later in the novel, when another character leaves Anterworld after spending a long time there, there is no cloning, despite the fact that Chang’s clothing and history has been even more affected than Rosie’s. Why is Rosie cloned and not Chang? Well, the irritating answer is that the story’s convoluted structure needs two Rosies, but not two Changs. In a novel about the verisimilitudes of cause and effect, these types of rule changes have the potential to bathetically undermine the book’s entire argument.
I have more problems with Arcadia, but this review is already pushing 2000-words, and I don’t want to get too list-like, so I think I’ll finish off here.
(oh, wait, one more: for a book so focused on the mutable nature of history, why are some elements set in stone? Like a document that history won’t allow to be destroyed? There are numerous mentions of history’s “proper path”, but what force or consciousness sets this path in motion, and arbitrates over its propriety? It’s definitely at odds with the otherwise infinitely changeable nature of history put forward by the text. And, again, the answer is simple: certain events and objects are unchangeable merely because the intricate construction that is Arcadia’s plot requires them to be).
So, yes, what Iain Pears has done with structure is very clever. But as the novel progresses, more and more is sacrificed to the auspices of this structure until what’s left is nothing but the structure. Characterisation, consistency, pacing… it’s all secondary to the grander project. And although the end result is an impressive piece of narrative construction, you’ve gotta wonder…. Is it worth it?