Science fiction: which way to the exit? The history of SF over the past half-century has been a balancing act. On one side is its adolescent drive to create slam-bang adventure stories set against the most exotic backdrops; on the other, its adult imperative to extrapolate the impact of social change and new technology on culture, politics and the wider society.
Plenty of authors still guard the hardcore turf, but many others have made common cause with literary fiction. Novels like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas make the Man Booker shortlist despite occupying territory which would have been indisputably considered SF even a short while ago. This is nothing new: such rapprochements date back to the era of New Worlds, with Kurt Vonnegut, JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock and M John Harrison as the borderland's longest-established residents.
More recently, many SF notables have made incursions across the frontiers, with alternate histories and techno-thrillers as favourite vacation spots. Michael Moorcock's Colonel Pyat quartet, and Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle" tour-de-force, are among the most distinguished examples of how to bring the passionate alienation of SF to the recent or distant past. Even William Gibson's novel Pattern Recognition, despite its unmistakable linkage to the signature works which defined the Cyberpunk movement, qualifies as a historical novel, set in 2002 and the aftermath of 11 September.
Now Simon Ings, who debuted in 1992 with the competent cyberpunk also-ran Hot Head, makes a play for the new big league with his seventh novel. The Weight of Numbers is by no means an unimpressive performance. Over 400 pages, Ings does not give us a single implausible character or unconvincing setting, or write a single bad sentence. Using a time-fractured narrative structure, his dizzyingly complex plot holds together seamlessly, although it spans three-quarters of a century and is set across most of the globe.
Like a virtuoso juggler with an unfeasibly huge complement of balls, Ings zips us from the battle between Frelimo and Renamo in the Mozambique of 1992 to the faux-revolutionary London of 1968; from the Florida base of the US space programme in 1965 to the "phony war" Britain of 1939; from a rundown English grammar school in 1930 to present-day Wales; from an Israeli kibbutz in 1950 to late-1990s Hollywood. Gradually, he reveals how all his seemingly disparate characters are connected.
His cast includes anorexic soap-queen-turned-performance artist Stacey Chavez; mysterious universal mercenary Nick Jinks; tortured mathematics genius Anthony Burden, and the Zelig-esque 1960s prankster-turned-people trafficker, Saul Cogan - the man behind everything from the 1968 Santas-in-Selfridges stunt to the horrific deaths of 58 migrants at Dover. Real people - notably Ewan McGregor, astronaut James Lovell and the computer pioneer Alan Turing - interact with the author's own creations.
The novel is stuffed to the brim with good things and telling details. Stacey Chavez's emaciation loses her a role in Entrapment to Catherine Zeta Jones; Red Nose Day offers Dawn French and Johnny Depp in a Vicar of Dibley sketch; and a 1939 train to Darlington stinks of Players and Capstan smoke. Ings gets almost everything right, yet it doesn't work.
To be precise, the plot works but the story doesn't. There is a central premise - "everything is architecture. People... are the patterns they make. People are rhythms, reverberating along the strands of an all-encompassing web" - but no real emotional or intellectual pay-off. Ultimately, The Weight of Numbers is far less than the sum of its parts. It is an example of how an extremely gifted writer can expend by no means trivial amounts of creativity, ingenuity, wit and sheer hard work on a novel that leaves the reader feeling: "Yes, I get it. So what?"
Charles Shaar Murray's 'Crosstown Traffic' is published by FaberReuse content