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Arcadia was a region of ancient Greece that, over time, became identified as a place of bucolic peace where traditional culture was preserved. By the Renaissance it had been idealized as a sort of pastoral utopia; but things are never as simple as that. There has always been something mysterious, not quite graspable, about the idea of Arcadia—best exemplified, perhaps, by Nicholas Poussin's 1637 painting, "The Arcadian Shepherds." Here, three rustics display to a well-dressed woman a tomb upon which is inscribed "Et in Arcadia Ego." That strange, incomplete line has inspired a variety of interpretations, but the phrase is generally taken to mean that even in paradise there is death. There is a specific reference to this picture in Iain Pears's Arcadia: we are clearly meant to have in mind this idea of a worm in the bud as we encounter this particular pastoral utopia.

But there is another rather different Arcadia that is even more specifically referenced in Pears's novel. Around 1580, Sir Philip Sidney wrote an entertainment for his sister; The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia was briefly circulated in manuscript during the early 1580s then withdrawn as Sidney reworked and restructured the material, cut some elements, added others, and expanded and expanded and expanded into a work many times the length of the original and still unfinished at the time of his death. The result is less a coherent story than a series of episodes, vignettes, fables, and colourful romantic adventures replete with a host of references and symbols and metaphors, not all of which remain clear to modern readers (if they were ever entirely clear to anyone except Sidney and his sister). Henry Lytton, an Oxford academic and one of the central characters in this modern Arcadia, is a specialist on Sidney's work who has created a fantasy world that serves as a setting for the story within a story in this novel and that draws inescapably upon The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. In fact, the whole of this particular new Arcadia owes rather too much to Sidney's example, for Pears has borrowed the unwieldiness of the original, the love of arcane reference and symbol, and the penchant for romantic adventure.

It is, in short, too big a book with too much going on. It is engaging and entertaining in its parts far more than in its whole. Indeed, making sense of the whole is no easy business. That is, perhaps, a consequence of its history, for Arcadia was originally conceived for digital media with the reader able to follow any one of the dozen or so central characters, or shift between them as their stories intersected. The trouble is that in following one character you might be taking a tour through a dystopian future, while in following another you would be in the midst of a spy story set in Oxford in 1960, and a third strand might see you in a colourful tale that owes a lot to Robin Hood and Ovid and Tolkien and Sidney and a host of other often arcane sources, all set in a pseudo-medieval woodland. Arcadia is not one novel but several, jammed together sometimes cleverly and sometimes inelegantly, but always with a sense that the many parts don't quite fit into a coherent whole. It is probably easier to glimpse the overall shape of the work in the codex than on a digital device, if only because the book shifts restlessly from one strand of story to another, while the digital incarnation encourages the reader to follow one character at a time. Even so, in the book, major plot strands and characters can be forgotten for scores of pages at a time, so the change of setting and tone when they reappear can be jarring.

Trying to set out what is going on in the story is no simple matter, partly because Pears, like his model Philip Sidney, keeps inserting more and more plot into the book as a way of sustaining his too-large cast of characters. But let us try to disentangle some of the major threads at least.

In Oxford in 1960 Henry Lytton is a lecturer who meets occasionally with a small group of fellow academics in a pub to tell stories. Since we are specifically informed that Tolkien has retired and Lewis has moved to Cambridge, we must assume that this is some remnant of the Inklings, but only Lytton seems at all interested in the fantastic. He talks about a world he is creating; not that he has written a story, and he probably never will: this is all planning and notes, an intellectual exercise in trying to build a fantasy world that is coherent and realistic.

Lytton lives alone except for a cat, but there is a local girl, the 15-year-old Rosie, who visits him occasionally to feed the cat and for conversation. Meanwhile, an old wartime colleague, Angela Meerson, has stored something in his cellar. The object looks like an old pergola; Angela says it is an artwork, but one day Rosie goes into the cellar to look for the cat and the pergola is glowing. She steps through.

In a distant dystopian future, an ill-regarded research institute on the Isle of Mull has the benefit of a wayward scientific genius, Angela Meerson. She has made a staggering breakthrough, a device that is supposed to open the way to parallel worlds. Her boss, Hanslip, sees this as a way to raise his profile and make a fortune, but the discovery has also attracted the attention of the ruthless and powerful Oldmanter. Unfortunately, Angela Meerson has disappeared. A security guard, Jack More, is given the job of finding her, a quest that takes him through the different layers of this depressing world in the company of Meerson's daughter, Emily.

In the timeless realm of Anterwold, meanwhile, a young boy named Jay sees a fairy appear from nowhere. He talks with her, then watches her disappear. His description of this encounter so closely and disturbingly matches the Story, the sacred text that guides everything in Anterwold, that he is taken up by the Storyteller, Henery, and becomes a student at Ossenfud. Years pass, and Jay and Henery visit the manor of Willdon for an important ceremony involving the Lady Catherine, but the fairy reappears and turns out to be Rosie. Thereupon, Catherine, Jay and Rosie get caught up in a swashbuckling adventure with the handsome outlaw Pamarchon.

The machinery of the plot turns and judders in plain view. Meerson's device is, of course, a time machine; she escapes her enemies by fleeing into the past. Still trying to use her device to access parallel worlds, she takes Lytton's notes as a model that she programs into the device. And when Rosie accidentally passes through the gateway, she finds herself in a realm that echoes her contemporary reality (Henery and Henry Lytton, Oxford and Ossenfud, are recognisably the same long before this is made explicit), and gets trapped there. With an awful lot of vague handwaving, Pears raises questions about whether Rosie's entry into Anterwold turns the imaginary into the real, and whether Anterwold represents the past or the future, and what disaster allowed for this depopulated realm. Actually, they are all interesting questions, but Pears manages to obfuscate the lot under waffle and doubletalk and confusion.

The confusion is largely generated by the fact that the overly complex scenario I have already sketched out is still only a part of the story. At various late stages in the novel Pears introduces someone who is despatched from the distant future into the eighteenth century, where he becomes Lytton's ancestor and sends a message to the future by way of a strange manuscript known as the Devil's Handwriting. Or there is Chang, once Meerson's assistant who is sent, all unprepared, to 1960 to find her, but then finds himself hurtled into Anterwold where he turns from being an innocent abroad into a malevolent outsider. Or there is the spy story: midway through the novel Pears suddenly reveals that Lytton worked for the intelligence service during the war, and still does occasional jobs for them. At one point he disappears from the novel for a while as he goes to Paris to handle the defection of a Russian spy, only for the defector to be shot on their return to Britain, which triggers a search for the traitor within MI6. Other than allowing a walk-on role for a young and unnamed John Le Carré, this strand of the novel barely connects with anything else going on in the story. If it had been omitted from the novel, as it could so easily have been, the book would have been fractionally less incoherent and considerably shorter.

Like Graham Greene and Iain Banks before him, Pears's career has bifurcated. On the one hand there are the slim, light, genre crime novels, the Jonathan Argyll Art Mysteries; on the other there are the rich, complex historical novels, the best and most famous of which is the first, An Instance of the Fingerpost. These historical novels made play with time and structure and perception: An Instance of the Fingerpost surveys the same event from four different perspectives, which change the meaning and the outcome of the story; The Dream of Scipio traces its story through three very different historical periods; while Stone's Fall tells its story backwards, starting with the result and ending with the cause. In which case, Arcadia is the equivalent of something like, say, Banks's Transition, hovering slightly awkwardly between the two branches of his career. Structurally, even though it shifts from the past into the future, it fits comfortably into the pattern of the historical novels, but the mechanisms of the plot are as slight and as obvious as in the crime novels.

Pears, of course, is too skilled and intelligent a writer to have produced an entirely bad book. There are parts of the story that are wonderful: the creation of Anterwold, before it becomes a setting for the sort of romantic, wish-fulfilment adventure that might have come straight out of Sidney, is a charming and intriguing creation. And I wish he had cut the spy story out of this book and made it into a novel of its own, as it so richly deserves. But his skills stutter at the most science fictional moments of the book. My heart sank every time Meerson began to explain the physics of her device or the way time works with less rationality or coherence than the average second-rank mage explaining magic.

Whatever its faults, you can now read Arcadia as originally intended on some Apple devices (though not, apparently, my own iPod Touch, and it is not available for any Android device), and if you do so you might well find yourself following individual strands of story that are engaging and appealing, while skipping others that are less so. In a book you don't have this option, so you can see the often clockwork precision with which the major strands of plot are fitted together (something that may not be so obvious in the less structured reading approach of a digital device), but you cannot also avoid bits of story that are less well worked than others (the dystopian future never fully convinces), or characters whose role in the plot is less defined than it should be.

Arcadia, then, is not a story, but rather a collection of story strands that sometimes intersect and more often don't. Some of the strands are fascinating, others less so; some of the characters are engaging, others less so; some parts of the novel make sense, others less so. Clearly this was an interesting structural experiment for Pears, but the experiment cannot be said to be a complete success. And for the reader: it's good in parts.

Paul Kincaid is the author of two collections of essays and reviews: What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction and Call and Response. He has received both the BSFA Non-Fiction Award and the Thomas D. Clareson Award.

Paul Kincaid has received the Thomas Clareson Award and has twice won the BSFA Non-Fiction Award, most recently for his book-length study, Iain M. Banks (2017). He is also the author of What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (2008) and Call and Response (2014).
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30 Jan 2023

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