IAIN PEARS Arcadia. Reviewed by Chris Maher
The author of An Instance of the Fingerpost explores what happens when words create worlds.
What if Alice’s Wonderland was a science fiction creation rather than a fantastic one? By what previously undiscovered scientific laws would that be possible?
In Arcadia, Pears conceives these laws and also asks questions about creation, existence, time and the power of the written word.
Rosie, a young girl in post-war Oxford, walks through a portal into another world: a familiar enough scenario in fantasy fiction from Lewis Carroll and CS Lewis all the way to Philip Pullman and beyond. But Pears’s use of this old plot mechanism is conscious, as are the novel’s many other appropriations, including storylines and characters from the western literary canon.
Rosie is friends with Professor Henry Lytten, who dabbles in creating the fantastical world of Anterwold. Lytten is a Charles Dodgson-type who shares his scribblings with writers like Tolkien and Lewis at a version of the real-life Inklings meetings in the local pub. If you had any doubt about Rosie’s relationship with the girl who went through the looking glass, then a further clue is that the real Alice’s father was Henry Liddel – a name not too far away from this particular Oxford don’s.
Lytten’s imaginary world is made flesh though an experiment by Angela Meerson, an escapee from a dystopian but highly advanced future England. An elite member of a callous scientific meritocracy, she is the only person to understand that the other dimensions her peers are attempting to colonise are in fact places in their own world in different times.
She proves her theory by travelling back in time, using a device constructed in her laboratory on the island of Mull. This brings serious risks of course, as anyone who’s ever seen The Terminator or Back to the Future will know. She then attempts to refine the technology by creating the experimental Anterwold based on Lytten’s writings – choosing his ideas over Tolkien’s and Lewis’s because his musings were suitably detailed but totally lacking in plot, so it could potentially exist somewhere on the world’s timeline. Also, Anterwold has no fantastical creatures. As Lytten tells his reading group when describing his work:
‘No goblins. This is serious. I want to construct a society that works, with beliefs, laws, superstitions and customs. With an economy and politics. An entire sociology of the fantastic.’
Story, he says, is secondary to all of the above.
However, once Rosie steps into Anterwold and is mistaken for a fairy by a young boy, the three different worlds begin to interact, with potentially dire consequences for some or all of them.
This is partly explained by Meerson’s Second Law:
All events displace in both temporal directions simultaneously and equally. The magnitude of the displacement is in direct proportion to the mass of the event.
This law also solves the conundrum of all time travellers: if you go back and change something in the past, you might never have been born, so how could you have gone back to change it?
According to Meerson, everything that exists must be on the same timeline and any change will reverberate along that timeline – in both directions. This becomes a problem once Rosie enters Anterwold, as now it has been brought into the real world’s timeline – and so actual existence instead of potential existence – and the reverberations may eventually erase Rosie’s Oxford and even the future Mull.
The way the real physical world was created from Lytten’s writings is reminiscent of the Marcel Theroux novel Strange Bodies, in which a man is literally brought back to life through the power of the written word plus a bit of golemic hocus-pocus. In Arcadia, a whole real world is created by the written word plus a bit of scientific gadgetry.
Both Pears and Theroux have great faith that written words (by implication, their own included, perhaps) can bring people and worlds to life. And while it is a common metaphor that writers can conjure ‘real’ characters, most concede their creations are bounded by the borders of the mind.
What joy, then, should the world the writer laboriously created on paper turn out to actually exist, with all the decisions he made about the height and weight and temperament of his creations replicated in every detail.
But if Lytten should ever enter Anterwold:
Henry would know everything about the world he was in; his thoughts and Anterwold would be the same. He would be, in effect, a god.
God or mortal, however, anyone entering Anterwold would find it a stifling bore. The lack of story leaves the characters two-dimensional as does the rigid formalisation of Lytten’s constructed society. This is not lost on Rosie, who turns the world upside down through her disdain of conventions, and actually helps turn the characters into people.
Some characters in Anterwold are cut and pasted from Lytten’s favourite literary works, most notably As You Like It.
The other two worlds – post-war Oxford and future Mull – are more entertaining, but even so, few characters are truly compelling. While the book is entertaining overall, Pears does slip into the trap of some science fiction and fantasy writers in having a great deal to say and saying it cleverly, but failing to create many memorable characters.
Big, god-like questions certainly arise, such as do you have the right to kill people (and worlds) you created? However, they are passed over without too much argument one way or the other.
Pears originally wrote the story to be read via an iPad app. This enables you to follow different narrative streams and easily see the distinctions between the worlds. But most experienced readers would be happily led through a story by a confident author without needing to consciously choose the story thread. Personally I didn’t find the app added much to the enjoyment of reading, although younger readers with shorter attention spans might find it more appealing, and might choose to skip over the literary allusions embedded, presumably, for adult readers.
Price is another reason some people might choose the app. You can download it with several sample chapters for free at iTunes, and only have to pay $5.99 for the full book as an in-app purchase if you decide you want to continue with it.
Iain Pears Arcadia Faber & Faber 2015 PB 594 pages $29.99
Chris Maher is a Sydney writer and journalist who occasionally blogs at Not a Book Review.
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