The beginning of a new year is the traditional time to reflect on the past and make plans for the future, so I’m recommending a thought-provoking novel which plays with our concepts of past and future. “Arcadia” by English author Iain Pears is a book about writing Fantasy and creating Utopian worlds. Whether the novel itself should be classed as Fantasy or Science Fiction turns out to be crucial to the plot. Pears is famous for creating intricate literary puzzles which challenge his readers to work out how the pieces fit together. “Arcadia” (2015) is available in paperback or as an ebook but you can also download an “Arcadia app” which will give you “the freedom to put the tale together in your own way.”
The construction of this novel makes it difficult to write a conventional synopsis so I’ll just give a taster of what goes on in the main plot strands. The story opens in Oxford, England, in 1960 as an academic reads an extract from his unfinished novel to a group which has succeeded the famous Inklings. Professor Henry Lytten is in the process of creating a very detailed Fantasy realm called Anterwold which is loosely based on the idyllic pastoral world of Sir Philip Sidney’s “Arcadia”. The scene he reads out involves a curious boy called Jay who strays across a forbidden boundary and encounters a beautiful young woman whom he thinks must be a fairy. Lytten is a scholar with an interesting past and he is still actively involved in Cold War espionage. He lives alone but has befriended a bright fifteen year-old girl called Rosie who comes in regularly to feed the professor’s malevolent cat, Jenkins.
An old friend of Lytten’s has left some junk in his cellar. When Rosie goes down there searching for Jenkins she steps through a metal arch and finds herself in a different world. On her second visit, Rosie discovers that this is Professor Lytten’s Anterwold, whose inhabitants believe that they are there “because of the great Return from Exile” led by a hero called Esilio. Their lives are dominated and defined by the Story, which is said to contain everything they need to know. Rosie is taken to a place called Willdon and treated as an honoured guest by its ruler, Lady Catherine. Among the people she meets are Jay, who is now an apprentice Storyteller, and his wise teacher Henary who knows that her visit has been foretold in an ancient document. In her new persona as Lady Rosalind, she is attracted to a mysterious stranger. He turns out to be the outlaw-leader Pamarchon, who is suspected of murdering his uncle, the previous Lord of Willdon. Rosie is torn between returning to the safety of Oxford and following Pamarchon into the forest.
In a polluted and overcrowded future ruled by Technocrats, a group of scientists has been working on a machine to transport people to alternate universes. Zoffany Oldmanter, the most powerful man in the world, is keen to exploit this new technology but there is a problem. The most brilliant member of the research group, psycho-mathematician Angela Meerson, doesn’t believe that alternate universes are possible. She thinks that what they have invented is a time machine and she ruthlessly experiments on people to prove it. Rather than let her work be taken over, Angela destroys her records and uses the machine to escape into the past. Security officer Jack More is tasked with investigating Angela’s disappearance and is sent to find her Renegade daughter and an ancient letter in “The Devil’s Handwriting”. Back in 20th century Europe, Angela has encountered Henry Lytten – a meeting which could have momentous consequences for the entire world.
Confused? You won’t be alone. Readers have to work hard to keep up with the interlocking plot lines in “Arcadia”. The book follows the stories of a great many characters, some of whom appear in more than one version of themselves. Spotting the time-travelling characters and their descendants is another challenge. Only semi-crazed genius Angela is given a first person narrative – a move which emphasizes her egotism and her pivotal role in the plot. She is balanced by two more sympathetic female characters. Lady Catherine is a brave and dignified woman hiding a very significant secret. Clever and sensible Rosie blossoms in two different contexts. One version of her seizes the possibilities of her future in Oxford; the other responds to being treated as an adult in Anterwold and develops into a forceful heroine modelled on Shakespeare’s Rosalind in “As You Like It”.
It is a running joke throughout “Arcadia” that Lytten’s invented world is very derivative, drawing on Classical and Elizabethan visions of a rural paradise but with bits and pieces from many other sources thrown in. Lytten is meant to be part of the British tradition of Fantasy-writing academics but he wants to distinguish himself from famous predecessors like Lewis and Tolkien by producing a world with no goblins, elves, monsters or talking animals. His aim is “to construct a society that works”. Rosie rightly points out that this makes Anterwold rather dull, especially as Lytten hasn’t even put in any love stories. He is the type of author that we editors dread – one who focuses on a mass of background detail but fails to create a compelling plot for his characters. This causes problems when Anterwold takes on a life of its own. In the funniest scene in the book, Lytten (in his bath-robe) is suddenly expected to sort out the lives of his characters but can’t remember what he’d decided about a crucial plot point. He wisely allows the characters to take charge of their own destinies.
I was amused by the idea of a writer renowned for his plot-making skills creating an author character who is hopeless at plots. Pears is an Art Historian who has written novels in a number of different genres. I’ve enjoyed his multi-stranded historical novels, such as “An Instance of the Fingerpost” and “The Dream of Scipio” (one of my favourite books) and his seven Art Mysteries set in modern Italy. There is a murder mystery in “Arcadia” and solving it gradually becomes more and more important. Near the end of most of Pears’ novels he reveals a piece of information which changes your perception of everything that has gone before. This kind of twist can be difficult to bring off but the one in “Arcadia” is a zinger. There is an additional sting in the tail connected to Lytten’s desire to create “a beautiful, open, empty landscape” which he believes is the English “ideal of Paradise”. This is indeed the kind of paradise often described in English literature but it automatically excludes most of humanity. There are many stories about the consequences of time-travellers tampering with the past. This one stands out because it asks how responsible each of us is for reworking the past and creating the world of the future.
I don’t think that every aspect of “Arcadia” works. The mole-hunting espionage subplot doesn’t seem to add much and Pears hasn’t quite solved the problem of how to represent the speech of the inhabitants of Anterwold. This doesn’t really matter because Pears’ work demands a critical response rather than bland enjoyment. Some novels are private pleasures. This one I immediately wanted to discuss with other people but only those who have read it to the very last line. If you belong to a reading group, “Arcadia” would be an excellent choice. It will either provoke the best discussion ever or cause a flaming row. Happy New Year!