LitStack Review: Arcadia by Iain Pears
Alfred A. Knopf
Release Date: February 9, 2016
Recently, I attempted to explain the plot of Iain Pears’ novel, Arcadia, to a friend who is both an author and a literary scholar, well versed in folk stories and fairy tales. I told him that it had time travel, kind of, but it wasn’t a book about time travel, or travel to other worlds or other dimensions, but it kind of was. That one of the main characters was a contemporary of C. S. Lewis and even a colleague of J. R. R. Tolkien, and that Tolkien’s Middle-earth played a small but important part in the narrative, and that it incorporated British military intelligence, Soviet espionage, Shakespeare (and very strong comparisons to As You Like It, as a plot device), teen-age rebellion, advanced mathematics, a bleak future where elites controlled society, corporate warfare, and a writer’s unfinished pastoral fantasy come to life, and by then I realized that I probably sounded like a blathering idiot.
Then I said that it was quite probably the most complex and entertaining book that I had read in some time. Because it is.
I was also intrigued to see that Arcadia had made this year’s Kitschies shortlist (the Kitschies being a literary prize for “the most progressive, intelligent and entertaining works that contain elements of the speculative or fantastic”), but in the Invisible Tentacle category for “Natively Digital Fiction”. And yet, I was holding the hardcopy in my hands with no mention of needing to access the internet in order to enjoy it.
It turns out that before the book was published in its “orthodox” form in February, it had been released as an app, where a reader could either read the narrative conventionally, or pick one of the ten storylines in the book (yes, you read that right: ten storylines) and follow a single story to its conclusion, or jump between storylines at will. This allowed Mr. Pears to write an incredibly complex tale, but make it fairly simple to read, dependent on the whims of the peruser.
Here’s a short video of Mr. Pears giving a short overview of the app:
But for those who wish to stick to the conventional telling of the story, here’s an overview: a brilliant, eccentric mathematician in an orderly but tightly controlled future has created technology that can either transport a person through time, or to another crafted dimension (the only machine that utilizes this technology is an untested prototype, so it’s not clear what the outcome will be). Concerned that competing corporate forces plan to use her findings for their own profit, she takes her prototype and all her data back in time (to Europe, specifically Britain, in the 1960s), where she intends to work on the project unmolested. However, the vaguest mention of her in documentation of that time allows future investigators to seek out documentation of her work buried deep in long forgotten historical records.
Back in the 1960s, the mathematician – an Angela Meerson, by name – calibrates her prototype machine to access a literary fantasy world based on the notes and sketches of Henry Lytton, a former Oxford professor (who had earlier worked with the MI6 – Secret Intelligence Service). Professor Lytton, now retired, had conjured up a place that he called Anterwold, a bucolic land where Storytellers are revered and little is known of the past other than tales of Giants leading the people back from the great Exile. Angela knows that her machine is capable of the jump – she had tried it before on another imagined world that was not dynamic enough to maintain coherency – but before testing it comprehensively she had moved to France to work out the details in peace and quiet, leaving the machine itself stored in her friend Henry’s cellar. All would have gone as planned, had not Henry’s cat disappeared, and Rosie, the fifteen year old girl who takes care of the cat when Professor Lytton is out of town, goes down the cellar looking for him – and subsequently finds herself in a far different place, indeed.
That little synopsis is only the barest scratch on five of the ten different storylines that make up Arcadia, and does not even come close to giving a thorough view of even the three whose characters are mentioned by name. But take my word for it – they are ingeniously entwined, while still beautifully evoking entirely different genres in their telling. (In an article written for The Guardian, Mr. Pears acknowledges that Arcadia encompasses “a spy story, a fantasy, a historical novel, a romance, a mythology and a work of science fiction”.)
But don’t let this talk of complexity deter you from reading Arcadia. Yes, the different timelines and differing viewpoints can be daunting, but honestly, each different section and each different storyline is told so vividly, and so “in character” that one can’t but be caught up in the action, even if there is a bit of having to let go of a solid foundation of time and place overall. When in Anterwold, the pastoral is straight out of Shakespeare (minus the iambic pentameter and including some uproarious humor); the interplay between the retired professor and the spirited teenager in 1960s Oxford is both nostalgic and enlightening; the corporate warfare in the future is chillingly prescient of our own Halliburton, our own Rupert Murdoch. And while, yes, it isn’t until the end that everything coalesces together, the reader is not kept in the dark for the entire novel; it does not reveal as much as it unfolds, with mystery balanced against realization.
Like I said: complex and entertaining, with the app or without. Actually, I may just go download the app, even though I’m not exactly digitally savvy. I truly enjoyed Arcadia, and it might be fun to experience it in a different way the second time around. After all, it’s not every day that you get ten stories for the price of one.
~ Sharon Browning