|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
This isn't a review of Sputnik Caledonia, the very fine novel by Andrew Crumey, who chaired and spoke at the Newcastle Parallel Worlds event a couple of months ago. It's had some very good reviews already, and I have nothing but my own enthusiastic recommendation to add.
I'm just thinking about why it isn't SF.
An outline can make it look like SF. Here's a novel that starts in early-60s Scotland, in the life of an imaginative, space-and-SF-obsessed boy whose father is a factory worker, a socialist, self-taught and firmly opinionated. One subject the father holds forth on is the contingency of history. After some strange experiences hinting at alien contact, and after a sort of blackout, the boy finds himself a few years older, a young soldier, in an alternate Scotland which has become part of a communist-ruled socialist Britain in the course of the Second World War. He's a volunteer for a secret space programme, which is even more secretly preparing to contact an alien intelligence that has just entered the solar system. Intrigues, betrayals, contacts with dissidents, and an ascent into space follow, with an unexpected and satisfying ending that ties the strands together and enough unexplained to leave us thinking.
So, yes, it looks like SF. But it can't be read as SF.
For a start, the text denies us almost all of the specific pleasures of alternate history. It does eventually reveal the hinge on which history turned, and it's the only place where I heard an echo of an SF text, in a possible allusion to a specific incident and a general mood in Graham Dunstan Martin's Time-Slip. But it doesn't elaborate on this history. There's plenty of detail about daily life in this alternate socialist Britain, convincingly grim and shabby and riddled with secret privilege, but there's no time-line to reconstruct from planted clues, and hardly any figures from our history to recognise (ah-ha!) in new roles.
SF examples of all this abound, but to take another book published as mainstream: In Kingsley Amis's The Alteration, set in a 1970s world where the Reformation failed, there's some sly fun with a Cardinal Berlinguer, a Monsignor Sartre, and numerous other likewise impossible historical characters, and a purely SFnal delight in imagining subtle consequences.
Or, to lower the tone (and the bar) a lot: my novella The Human Front has some of the same themes as Sputnik Caledonia: Scotland, aliens, 1960s boyhood, alternate post WW2 history, socialism. It's a far slighter work than Crumey's in every way, but it has more of the above alternate-history tropes in its seventy pages than Sputnik Caledonia has in over five hundred, and it does more to rationalise its blatantly handwaved (flying saucers, come on) physics. Crumey could easily do that - he knows a hundred times more physics than I've ever forgotten - but he doesn't. He uses physics in a quite different way, as metaphor.
And that's the key. SF literalises metaphor. Literary fiction uses science as metaphor. In Sputnik Caledonia, the parallel world is a metaphor of what is lost in every choice. That's why the book is literary fiction and not SF, and is all the better for it. 'What might have been' functions in SF as a speculation. In Sputnik Caledonia, as in life, it's a reflection that we seldom have occasion to make without a sense of loss.