I've been trying to put my finger on why Iain Pears's Arcadia is such an engrossing and entertaining book.
For one thing, it's a book that you can enjoy in many different ways:
- Like Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog, it's a delightful piece of time travel fiction.
- Like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, it's a collection of multiple stories, involving the "same" characters in wildly different settings, inter-twined and juxtaposed.
- Like C.S. Lewis's Narnia series, and George Orwell's Animal Farm, it's a rumination on current events, by way of a complex fantasy allegory describing how characters work out their problems in a completely different world with completely different rules.
- And, oh, yeah, like George Orwell's 1984, it's a dystopian novel about the dangers of science, technology, and authoritarian social structures.
Uhm, that's a lot of pretty wonderful books to compare Arcadia to.
Yet I don't feel it's unfair to put Arcadia in the midst of such a discussion; Pears is a superb writer and pulls off these various technical exploits with flair and ease.
But I'd like to suggest that Arcadia's main interest lies in a slightly different direction, something suggested less by the above comparisons but more by Yuvah Noah Harari's Sapiens.
Harari, as you will recall if you've read Sapiens, advances the premise that what makes Homo Sapiens unique is that we are creatures who can envision, imagine, and communicate about things that don't (yet?) exist. That is: Sapiens can invent fiction; Sapiens can tell stories.
I think Pears is fascinated by that most basic of questions that faces writers of fiction: can a story actually change the world?
Early on, we are introduced to our protagonist, Henry Lytten, who has had a number of careers in the past, but now entertains himself by working on his book, a passion he's had since his youth, when he used to read "tales of knights and fair maidens, of gods and goddesses, of quests and adventures."
Regularly, he meets with his friends in the pub; they are all storytellers, and they discuss their efforts. This week, it is Lytten's turn:
"Very well, gentlemen, if you could put your drinks down and pay attention, then I will explain.""An entire sociology of the fantastic." Oh, my, that is a gorgeous turn of phrase.
"In brief, I am creating the world."
He stopped and looked around. The others seemed unimpressed. "No goblins?" one asked hopefully.
Lytten sniffed. "No goblins," he said. "This is serious. I want to construct a society that works. With beliefs, laws, superstitions, customs. With an economy and politics. An entire sociology of the fantastic."
But: creating the world? Constructing a society? How does this actually work, in practice?
Later, Pears tries to explain this in more detail.
I spent many years reading -- really reading, I mean, in libraries at a wooden desk, or curled up on a settee with a little light, holding the book in my hands, turning the pages, glass of brandy, warm fire, all of that. Anyway, I was reading La Cousine Bette by Balzac (which I also recommend) and was struck by how convincing were both the characters and the situations he described. I wondered whether Balzac had taken them from personal observation and simply amended real people and circumstance to serve his purpose.
Then it dawned on me in a moment of such excitement I can remember it perfectly well to this day. Of course he had done that; he had transferred reality into his imagination. But -- and this was my great insight -- he must, at the same time, have transferred his imagination into reality. Clearly, in an infinite universe every possibility must exist, including Balzac's. Imagining Cousin Bette called her into being, although only potentially. The universe is merely a quantity of information; imagining a fictional character does not add to that quantity -- it cannot do so by definition -- but does reorganize it slightly. The Bette-ish universe has no material existence, but the initial idea in Balzac's brandy-soaked brain then spreads outwards: not only to those who read his books, but also, by implication, backwards and forwards. Imagining Cousin Bette also creates, in potential, her ancestors and descendants, friends, enemies, acquaintances, her thoughts and actions and those of everybody else in her universe.
This is as marvelous and compelling a vision of the power of the imagination as I could ever want.
Of course, Pears knows that it isn't, certainly, as simple as that.
Not many people, I suppose, have even the remotest chance of seeing their literary creation in the flesh. Henry is convinced that Shakespeare knew his Rosalind personally in some guise, but that is quite rare. I am sure Dickens would have jumped at the chance of some time in the pub with Mr. Pickwick. No doubt Jane Austen would have got on like a house on fire with Mr. Darcy, and what about Bram Stoker spending an evening chatting away to Count Dracula over a cup of cocoa.
Things move on, and there is some folderol about time travel, and the multiple universes hypothesis, and other notions of that sort, but really, Pears is after something simpler.
Something more fundamentally human.
Something more fundamentally powerful.
Something more fundamentally literary:
"Nothing could happen, because there was no cause of anything happening. Similarly, without effects, there could be no causes. That was to ensure it could have no past or future."
"She got it wrong?"
"No. That girl messed it up, and you don't seem to have helped just now either."
"She walked into it. You say hello, they say hello back, which they otherwise would not have done. Cause and effect, you see. Anyone who says hello must be real. They must have parents, grandparents, all the way back. That girl started this frozen experiment moving and developing, and that is causing it to join up to the past and future. When I arrived, the effects had already spread back that far. it is now clear the shock waves have spread very much further."
You say hello, they say hello back; anyone who says hello must be real.
What a beautiful sentiment.
What a marvelous illustration of the magnificence and wonder and joy of communication, of imagination, and of storytelling.
Arcadia is a book you can enjoy on many levels.
I certainly did.