Firstly, and quite irrelevantly, I’m posting from home today so this entry is accompanied by music. Currently Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli’s extraordinary Swing from Paris recording. Swing from Paris is the title of about half a hundredweight of Django Reinhardt recordings, many quite poor, so if you have any interest at all leave a comment and I can tell you which to look out for.
All of which has nothing at all to do with the marvellous Sputnik Caledonia, Andrew Crumey’s most recent novel and an intelligent and ambitious work of SF that should have been included on this year’s Booker longlist, but wasn’t. I haven’t read Crumey’s other works yet, but having read this one, I certainly now shall.
Sputnik Caledonia is a 550 page novel in three parts. The first part takes us to Scotland in the 1970s, where Robbie Coyle is an imaginative 12 year old boy who wants to be a spaceman when he grows up. The second part is set in an alternative history Britain which became part of the Soviet sphere of influence following the second world war, the British Democratic Republic. The third part is set in modern day Britain, back in the same world that the first part took place in.
At its simplest, this is a classic parallel worlds novel, a philosophical investigation of the implications of many worlds theory (my second post in a row to refer to that, odd, but I suppose if the philosophy in the novel should be correct, infinitely inevitable). It is, however, not quite that crude and along the way has some marvellously drawn characters, a great deal of humour, some extremely well written prose and a degree of uncertainty and doubt which make it linger in the memory more than perhaps a more definite novel would.
Turning to the first part of the novel first (though, and this is a theme of the novel, we could just as easily turn to any other part first and in other blog entries other Max Cairnduff’s will have done just that), we meet Robbie Coyle as a young boy whose mother takes him to the library on doctor’s orders to get him improving novels that will channel his imagination and curb his bedwetting. Robbie dreams of being an astronaut, and wants to borrow the exciting looking Rocket to the Stars, but this is soundly vetoed on the basis that if anything will make him wet the bed, that will (though in the alternate timeline in section two, he does get to read it, but finds many parts of it disappointingly sad – in particular a monkey sent into space with no prospect of recovery).
Robbie is brilliantly captured, as is his family, and much of this first part of the novel is extremely funny. The section where Robbie’s father, an avowed and fairly hardline socialist, tries to explain relative motion only for Robbie to daydream an entire plane hijacking scenario while not really listening is skilfully done (and like much in the book, recurs later as a theme) and there are many excellent apparently throwaway sections.
“On Sunday, while the Coyles took their customary walk, the sky exploded. ‘What was that?’ Robbie asked fearfully, looking upwards.
‘They’re testing a new aeroplane called Concorde,’ his father said.
‘Why are they testing it over Scotland?’
‘In case it crashes.’
Although, as in most parts of the book, it’s not throwaway at all and the images of an exploding sky and crashing vehicles will also recur. The humour of the above section is, I would note, deeply Scottish.
There is also a running joke with Robbie’s mother, who has a habit of turning whatever word has been the subject of recent discussion into a verb as needed “‘You can just spirograph off to bed now, Robbie’” (and note there the light way of inserting 70s period detail without overemphasising the point) and “‘Well, it’s time to Red Army upstairs Robbie’”. This little joke also runs through the book, without in my view ever overused.
Robbie dreams as noted above of being an astronaut, but more precisely convinced by his father that the Americans would have him bombing Vietnam, he dreams of becoming a Cosmonaut and with that in mind tries to learn Russian and sits in a cupboard under the sink pretending it is a launch capsule. He borrows a book on relativity from the library, but understands only the first page. He treats it as a bible, incomprehensible yet full of apparently vital gnostic secrets (there are a few quite subtle religious jokes in this novel, to go with the other elements of humour).
We follow Robbie through encounters with a babysitter, a family dinner with that babysitter and her socialist teacher boyfriend who looks down on working men and sees the revolution as needing to be led by the middle classes, a supportive science teacher, a monument to a man who died saving a child’s life over a century before, the unattainably mature girls next door (14 or so), a dance and to his first kiss. Through this, we also follow Robbie in various flights of the imagination, and in his dialling in on an old radio in his bedroom to the voice of the Red Star, which may be the voice of an imaginary astronaut or may be the voice of an intelligent black hole, or which may be something else again referenced in the third part of the book and which I can’t speak to without potentially spoiling it for others.
Each of these characters will recur, each encounter will happen again but in different combinations, every event is meaningful and many prefigure major concerns of the novel. Mr Coyle and David, the socialist teacher, argue about the inevitability of history and whether the individual makes any difference to it or not, David arguing that historical forces are all that is relevant and the individual merely a cog in the machine of history. When we get to the second part of the novel, we learn eventually that the diversion between our history and the alternate history lies in the decision of one man taken in one brief moment, and from which all else flowed. David is wrong, but as we shall also see, he has the power to stamp his vision upon the world in a way which the far more likeable Mr Coyle never will.
The second part of the novel is set in an alternate Britain, as noted above a Socialist Britain. In the first part Mr Coyle speaks of what a socialist Britan would be like, in the second we see his vision come true and although true to his vision the reality is in fact a terrible thing. Robert Coyle is a 19 year old army volunteer, sent to a top secret research installation from which it is questionable if anyone ever returns to the outside world (people leave, but it is not at all clear their departure is not more permanent than those remaining within like to imagine). Robbie is there to participate in a highly secret and highly important research mission, a black hole is travelling briefly through the solar system and the project is related to investigating it while the opportunity is present. Of course, the enlightened inhabitants of the installation do not call it a black hole:
“‘In the capitalist world, such hypothetical objects are referred to as black holes. Of course we reject the term, with its colonialist implications, its unsavoury air of medieval clericalism, its sheer inaccuracy. … We follow the Soviet nomenclature and call it a frozen star. What to capitalists symbolizes a fate worse than death represents for us the highest form of astrophysical evolution. Our visitor is not a monster – it is a unique opportunity for socialist exploration.’”
Robert suggests a name for the interstellar visitor, it is the Red Star. Robert himself is a confused young man, his memory faulty, an experiment which may or may not have been carried out on him has left him with a mildly confused mental state, and what may be telepathic ability (albeit of a low key kind, this is not one of those 1950s sf novels in which telepaths evidence new and superhuman powers, for that I recommend the tremendous Wild Talent by Wilson Tucker which is one of the best pure sf psychic power novels ever written, Wilson Tucker is an underappreciated talent these days).
In this timeline, we encounter again all the individuals we did in the first timeline, but recast. Robbie is housed with a family that we soon recognise as his parents from the first timeline. The head of research is the kindly science teacher, with a different name but the same personality (and the same failings). The socialist teacher has become a political officer, policing ideological correctness. Robbie’s first love, well I don’t want to spoil that, suffice it to say it took me a while to recognise her and it is tragic to see how Robbie Coyle’s wish to the voice of the Red Star on his radio to take him and his love to the voice’s planet is realised.
The brutalities of a soviet regime are explored in this section, the dangers of a misspoken phrase or an impolitic belief. The project itself seems often quixotic, and it becomes questionable whether there will be any space flight to the Red Star at all or if some far stranger journey is envisaged. Moments of confusion suggest that Robert Coyle may be overhearing at times the thoughts of Robbie Coyle, and possibly of other people in other times and places.
The head of research is keen to synthesis science with art, urging Robert to read Goethe (and that desire for synthesis and the works of Goethe both, of course, recur) and bringing a literary academician into the project to contribute to it. The political officer is suspicious of this, repeating lines which as a teacher in our timeline he said to Robbie’s father, about science being merely biology, chemistry and physics and about the need to keep things distinct (ironic, given his other argument that Marxism means that everything is connected).
This section comprises the bulk of the book, we spend more time in the alternate history Britain than we do in the two sections set in our own combined. Much of this time is very well spent, Robert is not the only volunteer for his mission but only one of them will actually participate in it and we follow their friendships and rivalries as they are weeded out one by one. We see the advantages possessed by the nomenklatura, the pettiness of the powerless who only by insisting on adherence to bureaucracy can exercise any control over their lives. We see hopes blighted, ambitions thwarted and a system in which the individual is ultimately of no consequence. It is both Robbie’s father’s vision and the ideological teacher’s vision, which although utterly opposed have met together in this world to form one consistent vision of those two apparent opposites.
And that takes me onto a key theme of the work. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The alternate Britain is a synthesis of the differing views of socialism expressed by Robbie’s father and the teacher. The novel itself has a first part thesis, a second part antithesis and a third part synthesis. Everything is connected, and apparent opposites are reconciled. Were I more familiar with Hegel than I am, I could make more of this, it is fairly central to the book, and I’d be interested to hear from anyone who had both read the novel and was familiar with Hegel’s work.
Although I see this clearly as an sf novel, it is possible to overemphasise those elements. Most of the novel we are caring about characters, most of whom are living fairly ordinary lives (if not always in our world). The novel deals in love, parental and between men and women. It deals in ambition, personal and politcal. It deals above all else in the gap between dreams and reality, and the synthesis of that particular thesis and antithesis.
Apparently the alternate history Britain visited in the second part of the novel has been used in others of Crumey’s works, this is not his first visit there. This may help explain why it is as well realised as it is, just as Crumey evokes the 70s lightly and without intrusive exposition so too we come to a vision of his alternate Britain without being greatly lectured in the process. Where we are slightly lectured is in some of the key themes of the novel, the thesis/antithesis/synthesis element and the concept that everything is connected and that everything causes and is caused by everything else. My suspicion is that Crumey did not wholly trust the reader to understand the many worlds and the philosophical and cosmological elements of the novel and their implications without them being fairly plainly laid out, but in this he fails in my view to trust his own skill. These are not actually complex concepts, they are simply explained and understood, and although I was already very familiar with the many worlds hypothesis I don’t think that had I not been I would have struggled with it here (I wasn’t familiar with Hegel, and he got that across easily enough).
In the third part of the novel, we switch perspective, no longer following Robbie or Robert but instead Robbie’s father (Joe, we now learn) – now a disappointed and increasingly bewildered old man crushed by sadness and angry at the world he now finds himself in. We also follow a boy, of perhaps 12 years old or so, called merely the kid, who has decided to run away from home as in a universe of infinite possibilities he cannot bear to experience just one set thereof.
Again, there is much that is very funny in this section, Robbie’s father discussing what he regards as a US conspiracy to covertly take over Britain:
“‘A big con, if you ask me,’ Joe said. ‘Biggest con in history.’
The magazine seller looked doubtful. ‘You think so? What about Jesus getting married and having a wean?’
Joe nodded. ‘All right, maybe that was equally big.’”
There is also quite a sad joke, where Joe forgets the word for people getting old and forgetting things, it is of course Alzheimer’s (though Joe is merely going a wee bit dotie, note that I’ve only ever heard that word and don’t know if it has a correct spelling, I didn’t think he actually had that particular illness). Joe goes to the local Asda, but forgets why he has gone there, he argues with staff who have little understanding or interest in his complaints, his wife is compassionate and warm but also houseridden due to hip problems. Old age is not proving kind to them.
For the curious, we’re now on to Stephane Grapelli’s Tivoli Gardens recording. These blog posts take a while to write it seems.
Meanwhile, the kid meets a man who may or may not be a Robert Coyle. The man is on some form of mission, though what sort is unclear, and although it seems he could be a sexual predator he also possesses a strange card which can withdraw money from cashpoints even though it does not appear to be issued by any bank and speaks of having seen “many worlds”. The kid is familiar with many worlds theory, deeply influenced by it, his imagination is a mix of very modern cultural influences (the new Dr Who features a lot in his mindspace) and his conviction that in an infinite universe “anything is possible and everything is certain”.
The ideological teacher, who in another universe is a political commissar, is now a New Labour minister. The kid is experiencing his first love, as Robbie did in the first section. Joe and his wife hold conversations full of pain and disappointment, though also tenderness and love. We are back in Kansas (the Wizard of Oz is expressly referenced) but the return is not a happy one. Again, there are nested references (the kid muses that “You probably start out knowing everything when you’re a baby but it gets wiped and you spend the rest of your life having to relearn it”, which is a pretty plain reference to Plato’s theory of infinite existences and the nature of learning, though in my view to say that Plato’s theories of learning were poorly argued would be to err on the side of kindness). Along the way, doubt is cast on much that has gone before, did the second section even happen (the voice of the Red Star, which in the second section is the voice of a putatively conscious black hole, itself casts doubt on the reality of its own universe in the second section – though interestingly not on the reality of itself as an entity).
In many ways the third section is an affecting and painful read, Crumey captures well the disillusionment of Joe, railing against America which he holds responsible for a world he no longer understands even though it is evident to us that the grounds for his discontent have nothing to do with the United States. There is a compassion running through this section which lends it a depth and a power that remains after the novel is finished. The optimism of the kid is nicely counterposed with Joe’s despair, particularly the mixture of innocence and cynicism which constitutes the kid. We are also left uncertain exactly what has happened, how the worlds interrelate, what is true. Was Robert Coyle in telepathic contact through the medium of a sentient black hole with Robbie Coyle? We are left in doubt at one point as to whether Robert Coyle is even telepathic at all. Is the mysterious figure on a mission in the third section really Robert Coyle? If so, is he the same Robert Coyle as we met in the alternate Britain? There is reason to believe that even if he is a Robert Coyle, he may not be that Robert Coyle (but equally, he may). The synthesis leaves us with many questions, the possibilities remain endless and perhaps the answer is that all these things are true. The man is Robert Coyle, in another universe he is merely a sexual predator, in another he is something else again. Anything is possible and everything is certain.
Although I thought certain of the themes over-hammered home, as noted above, this is a spectacular novel. Most science fiction struggles with creating interesting and credible characters, this does not. The characters, both fully detailed and the more lightly drawn, are alive in a way most sf wholly fails to accomplish. The ideas are huge, as ambitious as anything in the sf field, but those ideas do not swamp the small details of life – an old man’s disappointment, a boy’s first kiss, the realisation that unwittingly you have betrayed someone who did not deserve it. While exploring the largeness of the universe itself, the small details of everyday life are not lost, and that combination, the synthesis of that thesis and antithesis, is what makes this such a successful work. Indeed, as so often with a complex and rewarding novel, I am left having written much about it and feeling that I have barely touched on what it contains.
As I said at the beginning, in my view this should have been Booker longlisted. Equally, if eligible on dates, it should have been Hugo longlisted too as I suspect many sf enthusiasts are wholly unaware of it and so are missing out on what I consider one of the more interesting sf novels of recent years. Curiously, it does not seem generally to be being reviewed as an sf novel, having been somewhat Atwoodised (though not as best I can tell at Crumey’s instigation, I haven’t seen him refer to it as either sf or not sf and I somehow doubt he cares how one categorises it) by the literary pages, that’s probably a good thing as it means a much wider range of potential readers can be reached by it but it is also a slight shame that once again great sf work is being marketed outside the genre with the assumption seemingly being that if it’s good it’s no longer sf. Any novel with rockets, telepathy experiments, alternate worlds and intelligent black holes is sf, but on this occasion it’s sf which doesn’t forget the human in contemplating the cosmic and I recommend it pretty much unreservedly.