Iain Pears, Arcadia, Faber & Faber, 2015.
Last month, I was writing: "The 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award will be chosen between Adrian Tchaikovsky and Nnedi Okorafor." That was before reading Arcadia by Iain Pears which is also shortlisted...
Arcadia is a novel using multiple internal points of view, some in the 1960s, some in a post apocalyptic future and some in a world born of a writer's imagination.
On the 1960s, we follow two characters: Henry Lyntell, a respectable Oxford don who, following Tolkien's steps, has created a fantasy world, Anterworld, though he never went past jotting down notes. The other character is Rosie, a young woman who takes care of Henry's cat. In the future, the internal point of view - and the only internal narrator of the novel - is Angela, a scientist who has built a mysterious machine. Even she isn't exactly sure what it does. In Anterworld, we follow Jay, an 11 year-old boy whose life is going to change because of two encounters.
It is quite difficult to tell more without spoilering the novel: all those characters are going to meet and it is in the mingling of all their narrative threads that the plot takes life.
Iain Pears has built his novel by and for these crossing threads. There is a companion app (available only for iOS devices) which traces the threads. The idea is that the novel could be read only from Henry's point of view, or Rosie's, or Angela's, or Jay's. The novel itself has a pretty traditional story, but which is only loosely linear.
By itself, the SFF amateurs won't rave that it is genius. Since at least 1996, the genre has seen many fan sites that have built those interactive trees of mingling narrative storylines in a vast ensemble, whether it has been for the Discworld novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc. Not to mention Tube Theatre by Geoff Ryman (1998), a hypertext novel based on characters rather than storylines as is the case in Arcadia. But Pears is probably one of the first authors to do that himself with a dedicated app.
So where's the real interest of Arcadia? In the novel itself. It's a great story, even if it is a pity that some characters are pretty flat, particularly Rosie who is sadly limited to being the token "plucky young lady". But the many literary references, whether it is to Tolkien or Shakespeare, are highly enjoyable. And it's very very well written.
I've also very much liked that Pears has unashamedly assumed he had written a science-fiction novel (1).
As for the ending, it is a perfect ending considering how the novel is built around the idea of multiple choices.
I hadn't liked at all An Instance of the fingerpost when I had read it decades ago and I wasn't enthused at the idea of reading this novel. But what an excellent surprise it was! It is, without a doubt, a strong contender for the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award and one of the best SFF novel published in 2015.
(1) No, I promise, I'm not talking about you, Ms. Atwood. Not at all. Really, promise.
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