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Sparkle of the deep

FREMDER by Russell Hoban, Cape pounds 14.99
THE stature of Russell Hoban's novel Riddley Walker has grown over the last 16 years, even if his subsequent works have often been disappointing in comparison. The sensation, therefore, of an arm reaching out from the first pages of Fremder and drawing you urgently and unequivocally into the novel's orbit evokes a specific mixture of relief and exhilaration. "At last," you think, "Where to now?" and the feeling of being richly rewarded never leaves you.

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.