Rx: ARCADIA by Iain Pears

ARCADIA is a work of science fiction with a literary twist. The story opens with three different moments in time that are artfully woven together in a captivating narrative told from multiple perspectives. The first occurs in 1960s England where we encounter Henry Lytten, a scholar, writer, and semi-retired spy who worked on behalf of British intelligence during World War II. For twenty years, Lytten has been piecing together the structure and society of a fictional world in the hopes of creating a stable universe to write his characters into.

Meanwhile, in the future Angela Meerson has created a machine originally designed to transport matter from one universe to another. Instead, she realizes the machine thwarts all laws of physics and actually allows matter to travel through time. Unfortunately, time travel and changing the past could be hazardous for the inhabitants of Meerson’s world, but Hanslip, Meerson’s employer doesn’t believe her, thinking her motives are purely egotistical. To further complicate matters, Hanslip has been in partnership negotiations with Oldmanter, another powerful leader who is eager to use the machine to increase the world’s resources by any means necessary. When Meerson learns that the machine is too dangerous to use, she escapes into the machine to protect the world, since she is the only person who knows how to recharge it for use.

Meerson lands in 1936 Germany but eventually moves to England. The many intellectual advancements she received in the future, lead her to form a strong relationship with Lytten, who vouches for her and gets her a job at Bletchley during the war. Throughout the years, Meerson attempts to perfect her machine, believing that she can still make one that leads to a parallel universe. She uses her scholar friends as a way of accessing those universes. By placing her machine in Tolkien’s house, for instance, she attempts to create Middle Earth. The experiment fails, however, because there are too many magical elements that can not be programmed out. Eventually, she uses Lytten’s mind because he is more interested in creating a stable, realistic foundation for a story than writing the story itself. In doing so, Meerson creates a portal to Anterwold—dreamed up from Lytten’s scholarly work with the classics.

Lytten’s cat-sitter, Rosalind enters the portal setting the fictional world in motion, and a reimagined version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It unfolds. After her first night, Rosalind attempts to leave but instead is duplicated by the machine’s programming. Rosalind remains, believing she could not return, while Rosie returns with the full knowledge of Anterwold.

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Rosie persuades Lytten to enter the portal, where he is seen as a god and instructs Anterwold on free will, which resolves the remaining problems with Anterwold. Meanwhile, in the future Emily Strang, Meerson’s estranged daughter, historian, and renegade negotiates with Oldmanter to escape to a new universe with her fellow dissenters. In return, Strang offers him the Devils Handwriting, a copy of the machine’s coding that was hidden in the past. After Strang is transported, Oldmanter reveals his plan to bomb the past of her new place, in order to ensure that any current civilizations destroy each other with nuclear war. In the end, it turns out that Anterwold was not a parallel universe, but the future of our society after nuclear war, and Emily Strang is Lady Catherine the widowed ruler who must defend her claim to the throne in Anterwold.

Arcadia not only has an incredibly clever and imaginative storyline, but it is also masterfully detailed in its portrayal of the future and in the psychology of each of its vastly different characters. Arcadia is written in the same vein as David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, but Arcadia replaces the supernatural with science. The author entices not only his readers, but also his characters within the story as he makes the unbelievable real for each of them.

Adding the time and/or place to chapter headings may help orient the reader throughout the story. Although the chapter sequencing follows a fairly natural pattern, there are some chapters where it is not immediately clear whose mind we are in. The characters from Meerson’s time have brain implants that allow them to have conversations with their own minds. This is an inventive tool the author uses to communicate information to his reader and explain complications in the story, however, in the Meerson chapters the narrative drags during these moments. They read like long diary entries, which does help develop the personality of this futuristic being, but could be broken up with action or dialog. Lastly, because there are so many different threads, a lot of pages rehash information that the reader is already aware of. I think some of this could be cut down to just the reactions of the characters upon their enlightenment, instead of a retelling of events that have already unfolded.

Arcadia will attract a large audience of mystery, science fiction, and literary fiction fans alike. The target audience will include readers of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, and The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber.

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