BOOK REVIEW / Travels with no memory and a Samsonite: Somewhere East of Life - Brian Aldiss: Flamingo, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Online
BRIAN ALDISS's latest foray into science fiction takes us 10 years into the future, which is in many ways a far trickier creative feat than taking us 10 centuries beyond. There are still wars in Eastern Europe; people still travel on aeroplanes; the British Foreign Office is still being run by double-barrelled Scots. The new thing that has emerged is 'e-mnemonicvision' (EMV), the technology of which allows a largely unpoliced industry to buy your memory, edit it down to the exciting bits and market it on something resembling a sodastream cartridge.

Particularly popular are specific memories of lust, euphoria and (disturbingly) grief. In Roy Burnell's case, however, EMV pirates have duped him into their surgery, drugged him to the eyeballs and taken off with 10 years' worth of mental goodies. It takes him the rest of the book to figure out quite what he's missing.

The novel does not rest on the reader's willingness to believe that 'EMV' will actually be available in 10 years' time. But by playing out this gee-whiz part of the story within an otherwise recognisable future, it is believable enough for even the most sci-

fi-phobic reeder to suspend his incredulity and start enjoying Aldiss's imagination. What is EMV, after all, but a souped-up version of the Virtual Reality we already have?

To Aldiss it is the opportunity to send his hero across Central Asia on an adventure- strewn pursuit of the cartridge that contains his past. His biggest concern is that he has found himself in love with a woman who visited him in hospital and who, by all accounts, is his ex-wife. But he can't remember marrying her, let alone why the marriage failed.

Burnell is a God-less and nation-less thirtysomething. Born in England, he lives in Frankfurt, works anywhere from Russia to the Iranian border and is going out with a Frenchwoman who lives in Frankfurt and works in Spain. (His best friend is Syrian.) 'My home is my Samsonite,' he explains, in case we had missed the idea that Burnell is an Everyman.

Sustained by his narcotic pouch of 'slap', Burnell is the globe-hopping agent of a heritage organisation whose job seems to entail visiting troubled areas to see which historical churches and monuments have been destroyed in the fighting. But having woken up from 10 years' equivalent of morning-after amnesia, Burnell is never sure what sins he may have committed in the last decade, and starts to assauge his paranoia on an escapist trail of sex and drugs. Sex loses its appeal after he 'experiences' the act on a woman's EMV cassette, but the drugs seem to help. His hallucinations give Aldiss the opportunity to get ironic about the book's blue-chip theme: 'Even as he stopped to kiss it, the pattern became just a pattern in the sand, the eternity of sand. 'It's a silly con,' he said, but who spoke? There again went the bells . . . sand . . . Silly con . . . Silicon . . . he - or perhaps she - had been diddled.'

Aldiss may not be quite as funny or as inventive as Kurt Vonnegut, but he shares Vonnegut's ability to use the best aspects of sci-fi without being swamped by the whole genre. Both writers deal with a basic post-industrial struggle between humanity and dark forces that threaten to dehumanise civilisation. Through science fiction they crystallise these corrosive and invisible forces by recreating them as exaggerated monsters. For 'EMV' read 'Darth Veda'; the black incarnation of soulless technology. But Aldiss is no doom merchant and, as in Star Wars, the battle is by no means lost. In the character of Roy Burnell we get a flawed, paranoid but ultimately resilient hero of our time.