Books: A Week in Books

British writers love their Wonderlands

"IT WAS a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." April has opened warmer this year than in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but that evergreen dystopia still sounds - 50 years after its publication - as hot as today's headlines. A Nato spokesman damns Serb attempts to erase the written records of Kosovar Albanians as "Orwellian"; and we know exactly what he means. Equally, sceptics could save the epithet for a long-distance media war waged by "Airstrip One" against a dimly-grasped corner of "Eurasia".

Strange to recall the time when critics thought that the passing of 1984 - and then of the Cold War - might draw the sting from Orwell's masterpiece. In the event, the novel shed its geopolitical birthmarks to emerge as a timeless admonition, not a footnote to an age. (Meanwhile, the "Pornosec", which mass-produces cheap smut for the proles, now calls itself "Channel 5".) To mark its 50th anniversary, Secker & Warburg has issued a lavish new edition (pounds 20) tricked out with trendy typography and brooding illustrations - Nineteen Eighty-Four as a consumer fetish, the sort of bizarre notion that Honest George might blame on sandal-shod vegetarians.

Yet a book that withstood both Stalinist fury and free-market fatuity (when the US Book of the Month Club tried to cut out Orwell's theoretical sections) can survive our designer cult. And so can the loose but lively genre, of prophetic or satirical fantasy, to which it belongs. Utopian, dystopian, or any station in between - mutant worlds now bloom more fiercely than ever in the wild garden of fiction. Look at the new novels discussed on this pair of pages: Peter Ackroyd spies on London from a vantage-point two millennia away; Doris Lessing inspects love and hate through the prism of the next Ice Age; Bo Fowler plumbs cosmic mysteries via an immortal kamikaze... Remember, too, that Salman Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet takes place not in our world but in a parallel universe: a looking- glass zone where British troops fight the "Indochina" war, crooked "Colonel" Presley exploits sexy Jesse Parker, and Lee Harvey Oswald's rifle jams.

So beware the next critic who pretends that British fiction flows serenely down a naturalistic stream. Gulliver's Travels boasts as strong a claim to found a Great Tradition as Tom Jones. And that tradition, of free-style fable and bold, speculative satire, has never failed to thrive. This week, Penguin releases an off-the-wall parable called Flatland. It slyly sends up class-bound, misogynist Britain as a - literally - two-dimensional society where the low-status "Irregular" shapes aspire to join the "Circular" elite. In the final days of 1999, these poor flattened figures dream of the Third Dimension and a "millennial revelation".

A drug-assisted fantasy from some ultra-hip young newcomer? Not quite. Flatland, an inspired rediscovery, appears in the Penguin Classics list (pounds 5.99). Edwin A Abbott, the head of City of London School, first published it in - 1884. Perhaps those fictive clocks have been striking 13 for longer than we thought.

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