Sputnik Caledonia, By Andrew Crumey

Adventures of a teenage Scottish cosmonaut
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The Independent Culture

Scalar radiation is something that scientists mess with at their peril, risking critical ruptures in space-time and bringing parallel universes into dangerous conjunction. It's hazardous stuff for novelists, too. They risk producing novels that are just too damn confusing for their own good.

Andrew Crumey's latest, exhilarating piece of fictional confusion has plenty in common with its predecessors, notably the wonderfully muddled Mobius Dick. There's the attempt to apply experimental physics to literary character and plot, and the interest in alternative Scotlands – here, one which split from England after the Second World War, aligning itself instead with the Soviet Union.

Things start, though, in the "real" world of the Scottish lowlands in the early Seventies. Eleven-year-old Robbie Coyle is obsessed with space travel, only it's not an astronaut he wants to be when he grows up but – inspired by his militant Labour father – a cosmonaut. "Anyone wanting to be an American astronaut would wind up dropping napalm on children, according to Mr Coyle, while in Russia the only hard bit was learning the alphabet."

The first section runs along predictable enough lines, following Robbie's attempts to learn Einstein and Russian in preparation for adult life; his exploration of an abandoned military site, where he finds some strange green marbles; and his first kiss, in a cupboard at a church disco with a girl called Dora.

Things take a definite tumble for the weird, though, when Robbie begins receiving interstellar communication on his ancient radio set, and requests transportation. "Whoa!" says the distant voice on his radio. "You want to cross the inter-dimensional void?" And so it's across the inter-dimensional void we go. Robbie is now Robert Coyle, a 19-year-old volunteer at a secret (and rather familiar) military base in an independent Communist Scotland. His mission is to make psychic contact with the "Red Star", a black hole which is travelling at speed through the solar system and which represents for the Party top brass "the highest form of astrophysical evolution" and "a unique opportunity for socialist exploration".

Meanwhile, Robert is learning about the grim reality of life on the base. The loyal comrades must queue for food; moonlight in the Blue Cat brothel if they're attractive enough; and are destined never to leave the grounds of "The Installation" alive.

Of course, this all links back to Robbie's father, and in fact the novel is full of echoes and correspondences between its two sections, such that we are never sure if they truly are parallel universes of equal weight, or if The Installation is a product of Robbie's fevered mind.

The final section, which returns to "real life", 25 years on, might be thought to offer some answers, though for me, and despite much page-flicking and head-scratching, it didn't offer enough. Which is not to say that Sputnik Caledonia is not a stimulating read, full of political, philosophical and scientific thought experiments. A crossword puzzle can be stimulating even when you can't finish it. Even, perhaps, when it's designed to be unfinishable.

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