Books: Bleak futures begin at home

John Clute discovers pathos in a portrait of the writer as an old fart; Trajectories by Julian Rathbone Gollancz, pounds 16.99, 288pp
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USUALLY, ONE does not tell the ending first. But there is little point in observing the niceties with Trajectories. This is a novel which the unforewarned reader could easily discard half-finished as a piece of bad science fiction, of the sort often produced by "literary" writers who can't be bothered to work out how the task is done.

Though the body of the text is set in 2035, in an England tumbling down to ruin, Trajectories is not in fact an SF novel at all. This is a parody of all those literary SF novels. The whole story, we grasp, is a manuscript written in 1998 by Thomas Somers, an ageing writer in poor health and out of sorts with modern life. This makes up the bulk of the book. Its failure to bring to life an England in decline is not Rathbone's failure, but Somers's.

Somers is a mumpsimus, an old fart. His fears for 2035 are the fears of a man already out of touch with his own time. Like SF novelists of an earlier generation, he envisages a future England dominated by a central government which exercises total control over information; lets loose the militia on ethnics; restricts travel, and so on. At no point does Somers even mention the Internet, nor the multi-nationals which have already begun to trivialise national states.

The story contrasts the "free-fall" of 2035 homo sapiens with the 100,000 years we enjoyed in Eden before the savannahs dried and we abandoned our semi-aquatic beginnings (Rathbone credits the speculative anthropology of Elaine Morgan). The tale is told through the eyes of Somers's son Richard, a retired rock musician. He comes across his Dad's last work, which dramatises Morgan's vision of Eden, and brings down the law on him for accessing forbidden knowledge. Meanwhile, Southampton is razed by militia. The good guys escape to sea. England sinks into civil war. The manuscript ends.

Trajectories is a portrait of Thomas Somers, not of an imagined 2035. Once this is understood, an almost searing pathos can be felt beneath the bombinating crust of the tale. If Somers, a goodly bewildered man, has assuredly lost touch with any future at all, then just as assuredly have we lost him.