Books:In the future, when we can't play golf

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The Independent Culture
IN THE last few years, science fiction has become a more obvious misnomer than ever. While the sci-fi sections of bookshops are stacked, as always, with utterly non-scientific novels about aliens and spaceships, some of Britain's most highly respected authors (from Martin Amis and Ian McEwan to Jeanette Winterson) have begun to write serious contemporary fiction with science at its centre. This literary movement, which really ought to be called science fiction, will never accept any such label. Martin Amis prefers to remain next to Isabelle Allende on the shelves, rather than nestling up against Douglas Adams.

John Updike has pitched his new novel, Toward The End of Time, directly into the gulf between sci-fi and "novels about science". Set in a post- apocalyptic America in the year 2020, it follows a year in the life of Ben Turnbull, a retired financier living on the New England coast, as he copes with a failing marriage, separation, and prostate cancer. The book nods to the conventions of sci-fi, not least by including imaginary futuristic creatures, "metallobioforms", which live off waste oil and occasionally seem to eat people, but these elements generally play a small role. Anyone reading 30 pages of the book at random would be unlikely to guess that the novel wasn't set in the present.

For the most part, Updike is on home turf, wrestling with sex, relationships, mortality, and a dodgy golf swing. He is surely the only author who would include in a vision of 2020 AD, "I planned a little bump-and-run down through the medium rough that on the second bounce would dribble onto the green and ooze to within a tap-in of the hole."

While most futuristic dystopias (from Orwell to Atwood) are political in intent, Updike's vision of the future is a curious blur. Toward The End of Time posits a dis-United States of America, the Union having broken up following a war with China. Odd facts about the Sino-American war creep into the book, and we learn that California has "been reduced to near- Stone Age conditions" by nuclear strikes followed by earthquakes and mud slides, while New England has become a lawless territory, despite escaping the worst of the Chinese attacks. However, the details of this war and of its political aftermath remain a mystery.

We are told, without any elaboration, that Mexico "was attracting many of our young people as a land of opportunity. Those who were denied legal admission were sneaking across the border in droves, while the Mexican authorities doubled the border guard and erected more electrified chain- link fences."

As a vision of the future, this amounts to little more than an easy joke. Equally, with control of America slipping, in the course of the book, from gangs of protection racketeers to a militarised FedEx, one feels that Updike doesn't take his own futurism seriously.

What Updike has produced, in short, is a novel that is set in 2020 in the way another novel might be set in Ohio. The characters simply live there, in the future, and react to their life's problems in an entirely familiar manner.

And yet, chronology is still, in some way, at the heart of the novel. The time-shift to the year 2020 is mirrored by a number of other, not entirely explicable time-shifts which reverberate around the book. Curious imaginative interludes are dropped into the narrative, with Ben Turnbull imagining himself as an Egyptian grave robber, as a monk on Lindisfarne slaughtered by Norse marauders, and even briefly as a Nazi concentration camp guard. These sections relate to the rest of the novel in only the most tangential way, and seem designed to create a fictional universe which exists outside time. Time is out of joint from the very first sentence of the book: "First snow came this year late in November." The two words which relate to time, "this year", fit naturally at the beginning or the end of the sentence, but have been deliberately set in an awkward place.

Time remains strangely skewed for the rest of the novel, with a defiance of chronology counterpointed by a detailed account, spread over the entire book, of the passing seasons in Ben Turnbull's garden through the course of precisely one year. Time is hence firmly pinned down, yet also floats free.

This contradiction between vagueness and precision, and the novel's blurring together of fantasy and reality, of present and past, leads one to feel that this is a book about senility. Nothing overt suggests this, and yet it seems the clearest explanation for the novel's diffusity. An eerie coherence slowly emerges, with the novel's focus spiralling towards an account of the interior life of a man who feels the world slipping away from him. The end of time to which the novel's title refers isn't a sci- fi Armageddon, but is simply the death of the narrator. Ben Turnbull doesn't meet his death during the book, but confronts death obliquely, and discovers that it is a battle he will soon lose.

Throughout Updike's work, the loss of physical prowess has been a major theme. Harry Angstrom's high school basketball success casts a long shadow through the entire Rabbit tetralogy. Sport, sex and masculinity are indivisible in Updike's on-going dissection of the American male psyche. In Toward The End of Time, Updike takes these concerns into the final stage of life, dealing with a man who, having claimed that "sex is everywhere", becomes impotent; and who gives up golf, because he can no longer "walk the course".

Updike, as usual, presents us with an essentially unsympathetic narrator, whose plight is described with such precision and insight that it is impossible not to care about him. As moving and profound as it is elusive, this curiously ambitious novel defies easy appraisal. Straddling the genres of science fiction, literary dystopia and Updikean sex 'n' squabbling, Toward The End of Time feels, above all else, unique.