Christopher Evans is, to my mind, one of the great lost voices of British science fiction. He emerged just as the 1980s were beginning with a competent science fiction novel, Capella's Golden Eyes, but followed this almost immediately with two daunting and daring novels of psychological dis-ease, The Insider and In Limbo, which played with what we expect to read in a science fiction novel in order to question our assumptions about our own identity. It was perhaps the fact that these novels did not fit easily within the publishing category of science fiction which led to a long silence. This was broken in the mid-nineties by another three works, Chimeras, a lush collection of linked stories that elegantly examined the role and responsibility of the artist in society; Aztec Century, a brash and vivid alternate history novel that went on to win the BSFA Award; and Mortal Remains, to my mind his finest novel, a complex and uncompromising story of the distant future which again raised tricky questions that revolve around memory and identity. And again silence followed, longer this time. There seems little room for edgy, idiosyncratic writers in contemporary British science fiction.
But now there is another novel, one that combines the bold and brutal alternate history of Aztec Century with the subtle and disturbing unpicking of identity of In Limbo.
It begins explosively. Owen Meredith, a maker of popular television documentaries on the experience of battle, is Christmas shopping with his wife and two daughters. They have gone ahead to Hamleys, and as he is crossing Regent Street to join them, the store suddenly blows up. But when he wakes up in hospital, everything is different. He finds himself perched inside the mind of Major Owain Maredudd in a world in which the Second World War never ended, in which Britain is allied with Germany under military dictatorship in a perpetual war against America. There's a mystery here: Owain is in hospital because he also was injured in an explosion in Regent Street, but when Owain recovers enough to investigate he finds no sign of the explosion.
Meanwhile, Owen has periods of lucidity in our world. Or is it? Because the woman he finds sitting by his hospital bed is Tanya, a one-time girlfriend now married to his former best friend. There is no mention of his wife, Lyneth, or their two children, and when he recovers enough to start reading the newspapers he finds no mention of any explosion at Hamleys.
The novel shifts between these two parallel realities, these two versions of Owen/Owain. At first the rhythm of these movements gives us long passages, a chapter or more at a time, in Owain's world, interspersed with briefer passages in Owen's. Our viewpoint, regardless of which world we enter, is always Owen's, and he has the same curiosity we do about Owain's war-torn England and the mystery of his injury. Despite the grimness of the situation, there's a sort of boy's own excitement to finding yourself in a war hero, especially when Owain has a long flashback to a military escapade behind enemy lines in Russia, of which, though badly injured, he was the only survivor. Evans emphasises the bitterness of life in Owain's England by besetting it with a hard and extended winter; every scene that takes place there is blanketed with snow. Inadvertently, perhaps, this reminds us of C.S. Lewis's Narnia, where it was always winter but never Christmas: like troubled Narnia, Evans's blighted cityscape is still a landscape of desire for the visitor. Owen tries to will himself back into Owain's head because it represents, for him, an escape from the doubts and uncertainties that bedevil his own existence.
More and more as the novel progresses, however, the rhythm changes. The passages in Owen's world become longer as the questions surrounding his identity, his sense of self, become of more immediate concern. Why does he hear nothing from Lyneth and the children? Why, when he is released from hospital, is he taken in by Tanya? Why can he not find the home he shared with Lyneth? What is behind the locked door in Tanya's house? Again, as he did in In Limbo, Evans uses faltering and uncertain memory as a way of exploring doubts about the present. In this respect, Owen is a typical Evans hero, hesitant in his dealings with women but at the same time selfish, sometimes to the point of cruelty. Owain, by contrast, is almost asexual, indulging in a platonic relationship with Marisa, the disenchanted wife of the head of the secret police, but otherwise not shaped by the memories of love affairs and betrayals that seem the defining characteristic of so many of Evans's male characters. It is this contrast that makes it tempting at some points to read Owain as an invention of Owen's shattered psyche. Such a reading is particularly apposite at one of the climactic moments of the novel when Owain, drunk, rapes Marisa while Owen makes love to Tanya. Here the rhythm of the novel becomes staccato: we shift from one world to the other sentence by sentence, sometimes mid-sentence. It is a stunning piece of writing, as powerful in its affect as the invisible rape scene in Christopher Priest's The Glamour. But just as we begin in this moment to see Owen and Owain as interchangeable aspects of the same person, fragments of a shattered psyche rather than distinct characters, a new question arises, one that seems to change the character of the story. All at once we wonder whether Owain is making the reverse journey into Owen's mind.
It has to be said, however, that this intriguing proposition is raised but never thoroughly explored. Evans's concentration is fixed on the existential questions raised by Owen's situation, and the dramatic questions raised by Owain's. The stakes of the latter escalate throughout the novel. We discover that Owain's uncle is one of the main players in his world's military dictatorship, and that his brother is a researcher on a new super weapon--A weapon, moreover, that Owain has played an unwitting part in testing. Indeed, another notion the novel raises then quietly forgets is the possibility that this super weapon, code name Omega, is actually responsible for disrupting reality and hence opening the way between the worlds. As the novel progresses, Owain finds himself inextricably caught up in military and political machinations upon which the entire existence of the world depends. Given that this is set against a parallel world in which all that is at stake is one man's sense of his own identity, there is an imbalance that could topple the entire book.
That it never quite comes to that is testament to Evans's skill, and also to the strength of his continuing interest in the nature of identity. As it did in The Insider and In Limbo, this question comes to dominate the novel. The small discrepancies between Owen's memories and the world he perceives grow to assume as much weight as the world-shattering conspiracies that Owain must face. It is the strength of story that carries us along through the early part of the novel; when we slip into Owen's consciousness, even briefly, we are as anxious as Owen to return to the big, brash strangeness of Owain's world. It is the strength of the mystery that carries us through the latter part of the novel; when we slip back to the intrigues and explosions of Owain's world, we are anxious to find out how Owen's consciousness is resolving.
We can only hope that Evans's triumphant return to science fiction is a harbinger of yet another revival in his writing.