Arcadia by Iain Pears

Faber and Faber, 2015, 728 p.

 Arcadia cover

This was shortlisted in 2016 for the Clarke Award. I can see why, but I also wonder why. A part of it is set in the future (two parts if you accept the book’s premise,) it deals with time travel and parallel worlds, yes, but one of the futures is rendered rudimentarily at best and some of the writing is … is sketchy too harsh? Yet, despite that, the book plays with genre. There is a spy story here – and a romance – to go along with the SF. Neither does it wear its allusions lightly. However, the information dumping is obtrusive and many of the characters read as if they are from stock casting. Zoffany Oldmanter in especial, as cartoon a Bond villain as you could wish for. The Clarke has a history of grabbing at SF from authors generally reckoned to come from outwith the genre. This may be an example of that. I do note however that Arcadia didn’t win (though the novel that did ought not to have when Europe at Midnight was on the shortlist.)

It all starts promisingly enough, with a 1960 academic, Professor Henry Lytten, describing to some of his colleagues the fantasy world he has invented (“‘I am creating the world,’”) and reading extracts from his novel set there. This gives Pears the ventriloquised opportunity to animadvert about C S Lewis’s “bloody bore of a lion” and how his invention of a world resulted in only a middle-class English suburb with a few swords. Pears also acknowledges early on a source of inspiration in Philip Sidney’s Arcadia.

Then Rosalind (Rosie,) the fifteen-year-old girl who looks after the Professor’s cat, while searching for it in his basement draws back a curtain on a glowing pergola (disguised as a sculpture) and steps through it into that exact fantasy world. This could have been an intriguing premise for the book but Pears then adds layers of complication with the addition of a scientific outpost on the island of Mull centuries in the future investigating the possibility of travelling between parallel worlds. The institute’s Director Hanslip refuses to believe that the mechanism produced to do this is actually a time machine, though its creator, Angela Meerson, knows it is since past and future are thoroughly inter-related, there is none without the other, cause and effect are mirror images. If the past changes so does the future, and vice versa. To resolve the departmental conflict she despatches various bodies, eventually including herself, through the machine. It is she, using the Professor’s notes, who has created the world beyond the portal in his basement.

That fantasy – now actual – world, Anterwold, is ruled by the Story, its primordial text to which all disputes are referred, and is a place where storytellers are lauded, “‘There is no higher achievement or honour in the world.’” An assertion to which Rosie replies (presumably as an acerbic comment by Pears himself,) “‘In that case, it must be a very different world from mine.’” It is more or less mediæval in tone, though apparently more kindly. Despite its flimsy nature it is there the most important aspects of the novel are worked out and it and the 1960 domestic setting both seem far more real to the reader than the future world, dominated by the authoritarian Oldmanter, from which Meerson has fled. In one of her ruminations she says of the English “whose lives were so dreary and constrained, the fanciful exuberance of the human spirit was forced to take refuge in the imagination, which was the only place it could exist without attracting disapproval.” (I did wonder, whatever would she make of the Scots… ?)

By way of information installed in the head of an agent sent by Hanslip to track down Meerson in (his) past we are also introduced to the concept of deep lies, “in which the speaker simultaneously says something he knows to be untrue and genuinely believes it nonetheless: politicians are particularly adept at this.” How true.

In her act of creation Meerson has set up a tension between past and future which can only be resolved by the elimination of one or other of the scenarios. To get there from here in the real world implies catastrophe. As part of the novel’s working out, the Professor himself appears in Anterwold as a literal deus ex machina where Rosie tells him, “‘You steal ideas from everyone.’” As does Pears whose Arcadia, partly as a result, is a bit of a curate’s egg.

Pedant’s corner:- Great-aunt Jessie (Great-Aunt Jessie,) New Year’s (New Year’s Eve that would be,) “took every scrap of paper referring to the missing cleaner and incinerated them” (incinerated it,) “‘the folly of mankind, their infinite capacity for self-importance’” (its infinite capacity,) Mr Williams’ (Williams’s,) span (spun,) imposter (I prefer impostor,) “‘for kindness’ sake’” (kindness’s,) staunched (stanched.)

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