Children of the Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay
Arcadia by Iain Pears
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Arcadia by Iain Pears was structured (designed) to be read via an interactive app. According to Pears in an article he wrote for The Guardian he wanted to:
write something even more complex, I began to think about how to make my readers’ lives as possible by bypassing the limitations of the classic linear structure… to put it another way, it becomes fairly straightforward (in theory) to create a narrative that was vastly more complex than anything that could be done in an orthodox book, at the same time as making it far more simple to read.
There’s something wrong-headed in the idea of using technology to dumb down the reading experience. Still, I can appreciate the attraction that technology provides, the ability to tell stories that play with form and structure and deliberately eschew a linear narrative. And the e-book or app certainly seems like the perfect delivery mechanism, whether it’s inserting video or music into the narrative or in the case of Arcadia providing the reader with the opportunity to choose their own path through the story. I did download the app, and while I found it easy to navigate and could imagine myself getting lost in the branches of the narrative, I ended up reading the novel the old-fashioned way. (I should note that the need to pay a further $6 for a book I’d already purchased was major disincentive).
In spite of what Pears’ says there’s nothing particularly complex about Arcadia. The overall plot, for all of Pears’ attempts to muddy the waters by having ten point of view characters, is straightforward and familiar. It’s essentially an overblown time travel story masquerading as a spy thriller, a secondary world fantasy and a far future technocratic dystopia. But what’s striking about the book isn’t the way Pears juggles the varied strands of the plot, but how polite and mannered the novel is. No-one swears, there’s only a modicum of violence and even with reality under threat of total collapse it all feels a little too dignified. Twee you might say.
The three main settings are also lackluster and uninspiring. The technocratic future is pure cliché, cut and pasted from any number of young adult dystopian novels. It even features a multi-billionaire megalomaniac, old as creation, who no one has laid eyes upon for years but who controls every aspect of society. The plot strand set in Oxford during the 60s provides us with a half-baked espionage plot, an afterthought rather than a key aspect of the novel (the identity of the Russian sleeper spy is also obvious if you’ve ever read or watched a Cold War thriller). Finally Anterworld, the fantasy environment, feels like it’s been cobbled together on a shoestring budget. This is partly deliberate, Anterworld is based on the sketchy musings of an Oxford Professor. But by the end of the novel we, the reader, are meant to view Anterworld as a place that’s grown beyond the bare bone notes of its original author / creator. And yet I never felt that Anterworld was anything more than a dull, poorly conceived secondary world.
I didn’t hate Arcadia. Like a half-decent popcorn movie it was, more or less, an entertaining reading experience. It’s also possible that if I’d read the book as intended the problems I note above might not have been as evident. Still, I can’t help but think that Arcadia’s ambition was all in the technology and sadly not in the characters, settings or plot.
I’ll be discussing Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of Earth and Sky on the next episode of the Coode Street Roundtable. All going well it will be recorded next weekend.