RogerBW's Blog

If Then, Matthew de Abaitua 03 January 2016

2015 science fiction. The people of a small English town cling on to life after an economic collapse, under the protection of the Process, an ultimate allocating algorithm. But the Process seems to be spending scarce resources on recreating a battlefield of the First World War…

This is a very consciously literary story. There are plenty of allusions to the nature of consciousness (and Julian Jaynes of course), and indeed to the nature of humanity. Is there any possible society which won't turn horrible? The Process is a total dictatorship, everyone living within its boundaries constantly sending information to it (and many of the plants and animals do that too): a dictatorship against which there is no appeal.

"Does Ruth still mark the winter solstice by dangling the broken casings of mobile phones from the window frame so that the Process will not overlook you?"

"It doesn't mean that we believe."

"The Process requires neither your belief nor your observance. Just because it watches over you, it does not mean that it cares about you or even understands what you are."

The science is very thin; there isn't any sense of an explored technology, but rather it's one that does what the story needs it to do. People's minds can be partly overwritten as needed, which is a neat dodge round any complaints about inconsistent characterisation. (Why yes, de Abaitua is a lecturer in creative writing.) The eventual explanation of the technological basis of the Process was a very significant disappointment, for me pushing the story from light SF into vaguely technological fantasy.

There are some decent characters, mostly James and Ruth. James is the Bailiff, whose implant allows the Process to control him as he evicts those it deems unnecessary (using a diesel-powered armoured walker, because why not), but who tries to live a normal life the rest of the time; Ruth is his wife, a seamstress. Both of them experience upheavals and multiple reversals of fortune, and are solid enough that there's a sense of them staying true to themselves.

This is, among other things, a grim answer to the leisure problem: when the value of people's labour is effectively zero, they live by selling other things.

The future setting is only half the book; the other half is the Process's recreation of the assault at Suvla Bay and other moments from the Dardanelles campaign, with James thrown into it. Or is it in some sense the original battle? In the end, it doesn't really matter, because this is a very consciously literary story. You can wallow in it for some time, and the writing is most enjoyable, but it's kind of rambling especially in the middle third; and then you get to the end and, what, was that meant to be a conclusion? It just sort of stops.

(I was going to write a much more favourable review until then. If you can arrange for someone to snatch it out of your hands and run off with it just as you start the last few chapters, so that you have to imagine an ending, that might be for the best.)

If you don't mind a certain amount of surreality and don't demand a beginning, middle and end to your stories then you will probably enjoy this more than I did. It's certainly not for the reader who approaches a story as a puzzle, wanting to work out what's going on and then have it confirmed. There's some very good stuff here but to me it came over as too self-indulgent, and concerned with atmosphere and idea more than with storytelling.

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  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 03:26pm on 03 January 2016

    Ah, the bicameral mind; such a nice theory: neat, concise, testable. Pity if failed the latter.

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