Books: From King Harold to the Temple of Diana

Trajectories by Julian Rathbone Gollancz pounds 16.99
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A useful test of the present is to ask what we would think of it if things were always going to be like this. The year 2035, as imagined in Julian Rathbone's new novel, horrifies as much by what is preserved as by what has changed. New Labour, for instance, seem still to be in power in one incarnation or another. "Chair Booth", having survived the destruction of Westminster by flooding, must presumably be quite an old crone by then.

Other things have not fared so well, such as the blighted countryside and the standard of living and liberty for ordinary people. Others still have flourished. We may think the days of organized religion are numbered, but by 2035 the Temple of Diana has established itself as a fully fledged church. Technology has advanced for the few, while life for the many has regressed. The rich have become richer and the poor have become poorer. Both camps are represented by the two central characters of this novel.

The action takes place inside and outside an "enclave", a kind of futuristic Hampstead Garden Suburb where the rich sustain themselves with synthetic luxuries and conduct amateur dramatics in policed segregation from the hoi polloi. Here, Richard Somers, an ageing rock star, staves off death from boredom with an illicit affair and an obsessive lust for a pubescent girl, until his long-lost sister arrives on the scene. An itinerant travelling dancer from the other side of the wall, Hannah-Rosa brings something which promises a final hurrah to his career - an obsolete floppy disk containing their dead father's last written work.

In this future, however, such a disk is illegal and the work it contains considered subversive by the state. The work, an account of the evolution of the human race and an explanation for its decline, must be reconstructed under the noses of the hero's powerful, and sinister, neighbours. These include his lover's cuckolded husband, a senior civil servant, and the head of MI5 - the mother of the pubescent girl. Then follows a race against time by Somers to finish the work before he is discovered and by Hannah- Rosa to escape the authorities in a flight through the hellish English countryside.

It is not a pretty picture, but for all the air strikes and napalming of dissidents that goes on, Rathbone seems to have got most of the gore out of his system in his last novel. The Last English King was a full- blooded and evocative take on the story of King Harold and the battle of Hastings, and is apparently now being adapted into a blockbuster musical by Andrew Lloyd-Webber.

After this foray into the past, the writer carries off the future with some style. Changes to the world are introduced casually; so that a character surmises, upon seeing an old man with a blotched face, that he has "one of the skin diseases, probably a cancer". The pace of the plot softens a tendency to tell the reader what is significant to the characters - several passages are prefaced by that tell-tale word "indeed".

Rathbone still has a nice turn of phrase when he wants to use it, which, not being in the style of the book, is seldom. The prose is spare and reported for the most part, as one might expect from a former Booker-contender with nothing to prove in his 29th novel. But the beauty of the novel is in his research, and in an imagination so good it could be taken for research if one did not know better.

Readers of science fiction tend to be more interested in the fantastical science of a book rather than the fiction. They will not be disappointed here. Whatever the modest author says in his disclaimer, the science in Trajectories, heretical though it may be, is marvellously related. The sequences describing the aquatic evolution of the human race are the real gold of the book. The account is so plausible it is difficult to believe that it is not the prevailing view among biologists. Even allowing for the necessary pinch of salt, this novel will delight any fan of popular science and should please Rathbone's own readership too.