Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey

Picador, 2004, 312p

This book was not marketed as Science Fiction but in any straightforward reading of the term would be so, as it is fiction about Science, specifically quantum mechanics and wave functions. Science Fiction as understood, though, is not generally thought of in this light but rather as extrapolative. However, Mobius Dick fits the bill in this sense also, as its background involves a set of experiments to produce a vacuum array which can generate energies in excess of 1000 Eka-electronvolts which could lead to wave functions not collapsing on being observed and the end of the world as we know it. Fear not if you know nothing about the behaviour of subatomic particles, the necessary details are lucidly set out by Crumey in the appropriate places. (Or did I just find it lucid because I had encountered most of these ideas already? Studied them, even, when a student.)

The narrative is multi-stranded, beginning with an enigmatic text message to a physicist, John Ringer, reminding him of a lost love. Another strand is set in a hospital where patients are being treated for Anomalous Memory Disorder, AMD, a condition in which they appear to have false memories. A third contains extracts from a book by a certain “Heinrich Behring” but which is copyrighted “the British Democratic Republic 1954” and which focuses on Erwin Schrödinger. An Altered History too, then.

It is, as well, a consciously literary endeavour featuring in addition to the above; Bettina von Arnim, the composer Schuman and a letter from an unsuccessful Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne. No surprise it’s not marketed as Science Fiction. The John Ringer sections are Ballardian in tone and when he ventures into rural Scotland also have a tint of the testament of Gideon Mack, which I reviewed recently.

Crumey never pushes the connections between the sections. We are left to ourselves to infer that AMD is a manifestation of superimposed quantum states and the many worlds of uncollapsed wave functions. The characters, on opening doors etc, by and large treat any incursions into or from other worlds as if they are hallucinations, which interpretation is also entirely adequate.

The afterword, also by “Heinrich Behring,” like the sections featuring Schrödinger and Schumann, is written from the perspective of a world where Goebbels replaced Hitler, Britain was invaded but after liberation became a socialist/communist state and neither Melville nor Thomas Mann achieved critical acclaim. “Behring” depicts Schrödinger – who never amounted to much in this altered history – finding his famous (in our world) equation HΨ = EΨ in the scribblings of a madwoman.

What makes Mobius Dick ineluctably Science Fiction (whether it is labelled as such or not) is this looking in at our world, where a woman can become Britain’s PM, an actor President of the US and the many worlds theory is taken seriously, and finding it absurd.

But to label the book at all is to do it an injustice. It hums with ideas and wit, and not a few literary puns.

I haven’t been so impressed by an author new to me for a long time.

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