What an unusual book. It is an attempt to explore in fiction some classic philosophical speculations, such as:
- Pascal's Wager: it is better to bet that there is a God because you will then gain eternal happiness and all you are staking is a finite lifetime
- The Prisoner's Dilemma: a mathematical 'game' which compares the costs and benefits of two essentially selfish entities co-operating
- The Ship of Theseus: made famous in the sitcom Only Fools and Horses as 'Trigger's Broom': Trigger, the road sweeper won an aware for having the longest lasting broom on the street ... but it had had new heads and new shafts so was it the same broom as it had been at the start?
- And a variety of problems about how we know who we are (am I me dreaming of a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of me?), such as the Brain in a Vat.
The book does this by means of linked short stories. The previous book I read and reviewed on this blog, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, also did this and the same structural issues apply with this book: the reader has to keep track of an ever-growing cast of characters in a set of tales in which there never seems to be the time taken to develop any single character; the result is that the narrative is more tell than show and weighted in favour of the plot. This book kept a tight rein on the cast but the narrative was fundamentally driven by the philosophy which meant a plot that contained inconsistencies. Notably, a character that had died returned to life (as in that other staple of philosophical fiction, Voltaire's Candide).
For me, the result was a book that was interesting as an exploration of ideas (although I found it difficult to connect the philosophy with the narrative), but never enthralling as a novel.
So what happens?
Rachel, in bed with her wife, Eliza, believes that an ant has entered her eye. As a result the pair decide to activate Hal's frozen sperm and have a child. Arthur is born and Rachel, still complaining about an ant in her brain, dies of a brain tumour. We then learn about Turkish Ali who drowns, or perhaps does not drown, while swimming off the Cyprus coast, and who becomes (if he didn't drown) Rachel's father after a holiday romance with her mother. Most of the characters have a chapter including Rachel's mother, her wife, Arthur's father's boyfriend Greg, Arthur as an adult space rocket pilot, the ant in Rachel's brain, and Arthur's on board and personal but not implanted computer Hal. We journey from the domestic everyday into space travel and a world dominated by artificial intelligence.
There are some chapters I adored (eg the first, with Eliza and Rachel in bed, the second with Ali in the sea, the third with Rachel's wonderfully characterised mother, at war with everyone) and some which were much more difficult, mainly the one's that took me away from familiarity, such as the ant's perspective, the computer's perspective and the future world parts at the end).
Some of my favourite moments:
- "Where the cicadas sang he knew he was safe from snakes." (C 2)
- "Thirty-five years of marriage had encouraged him to believe that socks, like sex and good humour, were liable to become available without any prior notice. You just had to hold your nerve." (C 3)
- "The sunbeds were decorative, a promise of something. 'Melanoma', her husband said." (C 3)
- "It's a question of scale that keeps you from walking through walls." (C 5)
- "The way he saw it, human nature was stupid enough to almost destroy itself, and clever enough to survive." (C 7)
- "If you were made of remembrance and your memories changed, did you, who remembered, change too?" (C 8)
- "You do not know what gods know, you do not not feel what we do not feel." (C 9)
It is a tour de force of the imagination and a brilliant way of exploring philosophy.
December 2020; 251 pages
This review was written by Dave Appleby the author of Motherdarling