09 February 2016
Arcadia by Iain Pears
Henry Lytten - a spy turned academic and writer - sits at his desk in Oxford in 1962, dreaming of other worlds.
He embarks on the story of Jay, an eleven-year-old boy who has grown up within the embrace of his family in a rural, peaceful world - a kind of Arcadia. But when a supernatural vision causes Jay to question the rules of his world, he is launched on a life-changing journey.
Lytten also imagines a different society, highly regulated and dominated by technology, which is trying to master the science of time travel.
Meanwhile - in the real world - one of Lytten's former intelligence colleagues tracks him down for one last assignment.
As he and his characters struggle with questions of free will, love, duty and the power of the imagination, Lytten discovers he is not sure how he wants his stories to end, nor even who is imaginary...
Being my first experience with Iain Pears, I was expecting Arcadia to be a twisty, literary, very smart novel. There's a lot going on here: an Inklings-like writing group with fantasy elements (do you like Narnia? There's a Narnia call back.), time-travel, 1984-like totalitarian future. Mixed in among the hard SF elements and the fantasy elements is a chicken-and-egg type question: did Lytten dream up his Arcadia pastoral society which was then realized through Angela's technology or did he dream up the futuristic world which seeded his own reality? I don't know. This book twists and turns with characters that jump in and out and change as the narrative moves between settings.
I'm not quite sure Pears pulls the whole thing off - the fantasy and hard SF and Shakespeare and Cold War antics....it's easier if you just go with it and don't think about it too much. The story doesn't quite gel and some elements - like the "psychomathematician" stuff - pale next to novels where they're used better (think the meta-physics David Mitchell handled in The Bone Clocks). However, the ending of the book is excellent. Pears leaves everything for the reader to piece together and I appreciate that greatly.
Dear FTC: I read a DRC of this book via Edelweiss.