BOOK REVIEW / A future in search of the past: Somewhere east of life: Another European Fantasia by Brian Aldiss: Flamingo/HarperCollins pounds 15.99

NOVELS set in the future often don't work. Sci-fi classics like Neuromancer, busy with clever extrapolations of the present, can lack drama, leaving characters and plots undernourished amid a feast of predictions. Brian Aldiss, like J G Ballard, manages the rare trick of writing SF stories that would unravel intriguingly even without their eerie 21st-century settings, which, as in this fourth part of his Squire quartet, are kept spaceship-free.

Roy Burnell is an architectural historian, working in Germany for a multinational bureaucracy that catalogues valuable buildings. He travels, takes a few notes about cathedral architraves, eats at expensive restaurants, and arranges to rendezvous with his Spanish lover in various European cities. It's a nice life - until, in Budapest, someone steals 10 years of his memory.

Aldiss's imagined future is discreetly different from our present: civil wars in the papers, but with tactical nuclear weapons; restaurants busy with diplomats, but with foal on the menu. Burnell's memories have been stolen for e-mnemonicvision, or EMV, a new medium which enables people to buy and experience others' memories. He's devastated - suddenly, he doesn't know how his marriage broke up, or whether he's still married - and desperate to recover his lost decade. The plot seems primed for a melodramatic quest or a doomy rumination on memory and voyeurism, but Aldiss is more subtle. He makes Burnell run away from his problems to the Caucasus, where, caught up in the muddy route marches and ambushes of an ethnic war, he can live on his wits, with no need for memories. When he does go home, his fumbling efforts to reconnect with his girlfriend and ex-wife fail, and he flees again, this time to dusty Central Asia.

Here, the book's momentum seems to be dissipating into the landscape. Even the 'shoddy plastic supermarket of dreamtime' that is the local EMV shop brings Burnell no closer to getting back his own memories, lost as they are in a haystack of thousands of other people's, crudely edited for their pornographic content.

Finally, he leaves on a long, cruel train ride towards the West. A moral seems to emerge: 'The social order had collapsed . . . the weak are the first to suffer.' Has Aldiss brought us this far to deliver a pessimistic sermon about post-communism? But he intends more, sending Burnell back to England, where, at home in Norfolk with the 'desiccated squirearchy' of his family, he can't avoid his lost memories any longer. The sentences stay dry as the drought-blasted garden where Burnell meets his ex-wife. The plot neatly inverts: she's attracted by his empty memory, his ignorance of their break-up. And then, abruptly, that turns out not to be the end. Aldiss always was trickier than William Gibson.

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