Sparkle of the deep
FREMDER by Russell Hoban, Cape pounds 14.99
Sunday 24 March 1996
Just as the eponymous Riddley Walker and his limping English burst out of their opening paragraph, intent on the wild boar hunt that marked his transition to manhood at the age of 12, so the forlorn figure of first Navigator Fremder Gorn spins instantly into view, stripped of any obvious means of survival and "lost in the deep chill and darkness of the Fourth Galaxy, in the black sparkle of deep space".
The year is 2052, the deep space Corporation tanker Clever Daughter and its crew have disappeared and Fremder tumbles for four minutes without space suit or oxygen before he is rescued. Once he starts to recover, there are certain obvious questions, both for Fremder and the Corporation that employs him and, it seems, everybody who works. Why hasn't he disappeared and why is he still alive? What act of faith or terror has enabled him to hold on to the world?
In a sense, Fremder has always been asking these questions. His mother committed suicide when she was seven months pregnant, and his last two months of gestation were spent in an artificial womb; he has never known who his father is. Becoming one of the "star-wanderers and deep-spacers for ever riding out to the blackness and back to the fading and broken green jewel of their birth" has only confirmed his childhood feelings of emptiness, loss and the conviction that, after a while, "anything becomes home, even terror".
But still, how can such a pitiful sense of belonging have preserved him? The Corporation, determined to preserve their investment, tries to take him back to the moment the Clever Daughter disappeared, first by placing him in the Physio/Psycho Unit at Newton Centre, Hubble Straits and then back on earth, in the pixel-walled room of a 23.7 billion photoneuron Data Evaluator called Pythia. Fremder, meanwhile, travels further back into his family history, back through two generations of quantum physicists who have made intergalactic travel possible. As their secrets come forward to meet him, the Corporation squeezes tighter and Hoban flawlessly accelerates up the gears of dramatic tension and ontological inquiry.
In outline, Fremder's vision of terminal capitalism, of convulsive urbanisation and the "earth huddled under its ruins and its rot and its shining new machines" seems familiar from Blade Runner. Language has not entered a new Dark Age. But, seen from the emotional viewpoint of its unwilling inhabitants, Hoban's dystopia unfolds with a cumulative power, haunted by space, by the smell of Out There, and free of the fetishisation that undoes so many sci-fi writers. You may tick off the neologisms, the metaphors, the Fungames Complex advertising "THREE PUKIES TONITE" against your own checklist of nightmares, but still the bleakness seeps through - man-made desolation stands consistently as a failure to address the real question. How do we reconcile ourselves to the mystery of "the world in us and the world we're in"? To this end, Hoban seamlessly interweaves music, the story of Elijah, Vermeer and quantum physics; he displays prodigious storytelling skills and an uncanny talent for fleshing out allegories. The result is an urgent, bitterly ironic but, at the last, tender evocation of the capacities of the human spirit.
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 2 The confessions of men who ordered mail-order brides
- 3 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
- 4 Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
- 5 'Isis' schoolgirls: Missing British teenager tweets picture of her Syrian takeaway
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove