Sputnik Caledonia by Andrew Crumey

Picador, 2008. 553 p.

In the first part of the novel a shy boy called Robbie Coyle is growing up in a village called Kenzie in 1960s Scotland with the ambition of going into space. Since his father is an ardent socialist and anti-American Robbie therefore wants to be a cosmonaut. A frequent attender at his local library, he devours knowledge about the Soviet Union and discovers that “Russian is a language where some letters are written back to front and others are completely made up.” Quotes such as this display Crumey’s excellent ability to inhabit the world of a pre-adolescent. As he matures he starts to hear a voice in his head. The section ends with that voice saying, “I guess we’re not in Kenzie any more.”

The story then flips into a scenario of a Soviet-style Britain where a young adult Robert Coyle has been recruited into a space project to reach, before the wicked capitalists do so, what is possibly a black hole travelling through the solar system. The secret “Installation” where Robert is in training is suitably grim, the illustrations of the many compromises people have to make in such a society convincing, though whether dissidents could flourish there is another question. Perhaps this exists in the same British Democratic Republic which featured in the author’s Mobius Dick.

This central section could be considered an Altered History novel where the Jonbar Hinge lies in whether or not a man named Deuchar died while trying to rescue twins from drowning many years before the time the action is set. Yet its juxtaposition with the preceding and following parts, set in the “real” world, argues against this. And Crumey’s treatment of his subject matter does not have the feel of SF. The Soviet section can be read to be implicitly a figment of Robbie’s imagination. The subtlety of the point of divergence also marks this out from SF treatments of Altered Worlds. While Crumey pushes credibility a little by having characters in the central section behave and speak, or have the same names as, those in the book-end segments he does certainly avoid the trap into which Philip Roth fell in The Plot Against America of restoring the altered world to normal by the end.

The coda, a (present day?) exploration of the situation of Robbie’s ageing parents and a young boy who meets a mysterious stranger on a mission (which he is unwilling to explain) provides counterpoint and a resolution of sorts.

Sputnik Caledonia is excellently written and engaging, with convincing characters, but not quite as full of verve as Mobius Dick. I will look out for more Crumey, though.

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  1. PfITZ by Andrew Crumey – A Son of the Rock -- Jack Deighton

    […] I not previously read Crumey’s Mobius Dick, Sputnik Caledonia and Music, in a Foreign Language I might have been more taken with PfITZ. It is still a worthwhile […]

  2. Music, in a Foreign Language by Andrew Crumey – A Son of the Rock -- Jack Deighton

    […] was the first appearance of that altered history in which Crumey also set parts of Mobius Dick and Sputnik Caledonia. The compromises such a society demands, the paranoia it engenders – and the betrayals it […]

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