Robbie Coyle is an imaginative yet withdrawn boy growing up in Western Scotland in the 1960s, the era of Concorde and "the white heat of technology." Like many of his peers, Robbie dreams of spaceflight, and seeks out books on rocketry and relativity in his local library. However, under the influence of his father Joe, a staunch socialist, Robbie hopes to become not an astronaut, but a Soviet cosmonaut. Confronted by the usual problems which face a growing lad, Robbie finds solace in the soothing sound of the decrepit radio-set in his bedroom, tuned to the distant "Voice of the Red Star." Meanwhile, in a very different world, a very different Robert Coyle has been recruited for a top-secret mission. Robert is a citizen of an impoverished and repressive communist Britain, "liberated" by the Soviet Union after a wartime Nazi occupation. He has been brought to the ultra-secure Installation in preparation for his task: to intercept a wandering black hole, given the ideologically-appropriately moniker of The Red Star. However, all is not as it seems; scientists and official spokesmen for the regime are divided over the nature of the interplanetary phenomenon, and the means of communicating with it prove to be highly unorthodox. The Installation itself has been penetrated by enemies of the regime, who have their own ideas about the significance of the heavenly body. While undergoing training, Robert begins to question the nature of the world he lives in for the first time, threatening to put himself, those around him and his mission in jeopardy.
Sputnik Caledonia, in other words, is a tale of parallel worlds. Crumey's prose is relatively spare and undescriptive, and makes for an undemanding read but still manages to invoke a compelling sense of place. "Our" Scotland is effectively portrayed through the eyes of young Robbie, with the "real" world constantly interwoven with his frequent flights of fancy, giving us an insight into the over-active imagination of the boy. Gentle humour is also derived from Robbie's attempts to make sense of subjects he only half-understands, whether it is relativistic physics, the bewilderingly Anglo-centric media, or his father's left-wing hobby-horses. Crumey successfully manages to combine an atmosphere of cosy childhood nostalgia with the sense of a community in decline, its old certainties (as represented by Joe Coyle's self-reliant working class pride) facing unprecedented challenges.
The bleak, sordid world of "Soviet Scotland" is similarly low-key and domestic, and equally well-realised. The Installation, constructed on the same site as Robbie's hometown in 'our' world, is a closed community: scientists and workers who arrive to work at the base soon realise they will never leave. Their day-to-day needs, including their sexual whims, are catered to by political prisoners, and it is at the Blue Cat brothel that Robert comes to realise the extent of the human degradation that lies behind the confident slogans of the one-party state. The sense of moral compromise, corruption, and justified paranoia which pervades this alternate world is conveyed not by firing-squads, jack-boots, and gulags, but through the nuanced, guarded conversations of the Installation's inhabitants and the all-embracing sense of hopelessness. This dictatorship is no carbon copy of the Soviet Union, nor of 1984's Airstrip One, but seems characteristically Scottish: dour, drab, and grey, but not lacking in glimpses of humanity and black humour. Occasionally, for all its cruelties and absurdities, it seems less alien than the pre-Thatcherite world inhabited by Robbie and Joe Coyle in the book's opening chapters.
While establishing convincing backdrops for its narrative, Sputnik Caledonia does take some time to develop momentum. The first half of the book seems content to coast along, with the most intriguing elements only emerging after some 250 pages. Attempts to foster a sense of dramatic tension are hindered by the rather one-dimensional nature of many of the characters, the majority of whom are required to appear in alternative guises in each alternate universe. The most glaring victim of this is Robbie/Robert's mother/landlady, who is reduced to a cipher characterised mainly by identical verbal tics in each setting. Other characters become more interesting through being portrayed in contrasting roles in each universe, although I was involuntarily reminded of those episodes of Doctor Who and Star Trek where parallel universes existed largely to give the regular cast an opportunity to play baddies for a week or two, usually dressed in cod-SS fetish outfits. One character to receive this treatment is Robbie's enthusiastic science teacher, Tulloch, who crops up in the Installation as an eclectic German researcher, Kaupff, being forced through ideological hoops time and again in order to retain his leadership of the Red Star project. His antagonist, the amoral political commissar Davis, is a relatively harmless Trotskyist trade-union activist in "our" world, hinting at the damage done when dogmatic careerists are allowed to get their hands on the reins of power.
Fortunately, the character at the heart of the novel, Robbie's father Joe, does develop into a convincing and fully-rounded personality. He is an archetypal Scottish working-class patriarch, a fiercely proud and austere autodidact, bullishly independently-minded yet limited by his political blinkers. The novel essentially serves as a critique of Joe's philosophical and political views, and it would therefore be all too easy for him to descend into caricature or cliché, yet while he occasionally appears borish, his humanity and compassion is never in doubt. When he reappears at the end of the novel he has turned into the stereotypical loony-left conspiracy theorist, in a deliberate demonstration of how a crushing personal tragedy has reduced him to a shadow of his former self.
Joe's political and philosophical views are central to the core theme of Sputnik Caledonia, which is revealed once the novel hits its stride: the contrast between rigid determinism and the multiplicity of possibilities and meanings opened up by modern quantum physics. Joe Coyle stands for a form of crude, no-nonsense materialism; an impassioned adherent of orthodox Marxism, he holds that the historical dialectic means that the world inevitably progresses along a predetermined course and things can only be as they are. Furthermore, human beings are merely products of their material environment, little different from animals or cogs in a vast machine. While Coyle is a good-natured humanist himself, Crumey suggests that such a point of view, which disallows free will and the intangible 'human factor', can be used to justify the inhuman dystopia portrayed later in the novel. Indeed, one of the researchers at the Installation echoes Joe's convictions in colder, harsher terms:
I know you all have your personalities and your hobbies, but let's face it, you're all the same. All the art, all the wars, all the civilizations and their discontents, they're all about a bag of flesh that gets pumped full of blood. (p. 371)
Robbie/Robert Coyle remains instinctively unconvinced by these arguments, which seem to him to provide no basis for human dignity and self-sacrifice, and the parallel worlds which the story posits seem to bear him out. Crumey deals with these issues with some sensitivity, but it must be said that Joe Coyle is, in some ways, a straw man; his politics have been discredited for almost forty years, his scientific philosophy for almost a century. This inevitably means that some of the book's satirical targets are rather easy game, and that it lacks much intellectual bite. SF readers will also find little that is fresh in Crumey's handling of alternative universes. Readers more accustomed to mainstream literature may be more tolerant, but even the literary establishment (Rushdie and McEwan spring to mind) have been happily plundering quantum physics for inspiration for at least two decades, often to more telling effect. Nonetheless, Sputnik Caledonia's greatest strength lies in the rich and contrasting portraits of the two universes it envisions, and once it gets properly underway it provides a thought-provoking twist on its familiar theme.
Michael Froggatt is Teaching Associate in European History at the University of Edinburgh.
You must log in to post a comment.