Every now and then, a debut novel knocks you blind. I don't necessarily mean in terms of quality—although in the case of Nina Allan's The Race that is very often so—but in terms of expression, design, or execution. There is in the debut novel the promise of something new. Very often it goes unmet, and more often still the newness is of a modest or incremental sort; but where we read the books of favorite authors for refinement and an evolution of voice, perhaps we read debutantes for dislocation. And every now and then, it's possible to feel that snap acutely.
Nina Allan is a voice familiar to the field: most obviously in this parish, her reviews and criticism are waspish but generous, and always perspicacious. Her short fiction, too, has already been collected several times, and she also has a novella to her name. But this latest volume from Ian Whates's NewCon Press is her first novel-length effort—and it demands we learn anew to read it. Structurally and thematically, and not a little stylistically, Allan is trying something rather unusual with The Race: a distancing novel about drawing in, a science fiction novel aware of its own artifice, a literary fiction impatient with mimesis. It is split into four parts, and each is simultaneously orthogonal and integral to the other. This is exciting, but also confounding.
All of which is not to say that The Race is without comparators. For starters, and as Allan has said in a recent interview, her particular brand of formal innovation is more familiar to those readers who do not restrict themselves to Anglophone literature: the queasy relationship to genre resembles Zoran Živković, the interest in structure has a decidedly French air. At the same time, with its down-at-heel market towns and its mustn't-grumble aversion to fussiness, The Race feels as English as any novel I've read all year.
Indeed, Allan sits rather comfortably in the literary fringes of British science fiction. Most obviously, M. John Harrison looms very large above this novel. The slipperiness of its mode, the dryness of its prose, the sense of entropy around the lives of its characters all recall the liminal spaces, and mordant prose, of Harrison's work; likewise, we can detect the influences of other luminaries of British SF including Gwyneth Jones, Simon Ings, and Allan's partner, Christopher Priest. Readers with a kink for understatement, alienation, and locution will be at home.
And yet not. The Race gives itself away—if at all—only in glimpses. It begins with Jenna, who lives in a future Romney Marsh, drained and fracked to the point of uninhabitable extinction. Her own town, Sapphire, seems to have no cognate in the present day but has grown up around smartdog racing—a sport that resembles modern-day greyhound racing, but with the twist that smartdogs are, via genetic modification, linked empathically with their human "runners." This is a miserly kind of reason for any town to exist, but it is all Sapphire has—and the rest of the future seems more or less as bleak and more or less as pointless. "It makes you wonder if the future was something we could have changed if we'd tried harder," Jenna says, "or if everything that was going to happen would still have happened, whatever" (p. 15). This passivity—this punch-drunk apathy—characterizes life in Sapphire.
Which is not to say that life in Sapphire feels entirely real. Like the future in Priest's own recent The Adjacent (2013), Jenna's feels partial: we don't glimpse much of the outside world, and we don't really come to understand how this hollowed-out economy can really function with only smartdogs and riders to power it. Jenna's brother, Del, is a shady character with underworld connections—but, again, a black economy can't really function with a white and a grey. The environmental collapse Jenna lives with, or the war that occurred an indeterminate period of time ago—in which a million Britons died—feel underformed. "There's a lot of hard science stuff I don't understand fully," Jenna admits on the topic of smartdogs, and it's an approach she takes to narrative overall (p. 24).
Your reviewer was all ready to put this down as a bug—until it clearly became, in the novel's second part, a feature. I can recommend experiencing The Race as I did—entirely cold—but for those interested in Allan's particular turn, here it is: in part two, we meet Christy, an author in recent-past England who also has a shady brother whose name begins with D, and who writes short stories set in a town called Sapphire. The preceding ninety pages, we realize, were one of her stories, a kind of iteration of the story we read again—refracted, altered, undermined—when we meet Christy. At this point, the ambition of The Race is revealed: if Jenna is Christy's character, then both are Allan's. What, we might ask, is the purpose here, the governing intelligence? Who is the smartdog, and who the runner?
The novel's third part, after all, works in turn to undo every assumption of Christy's narrative. It is told from the viewpoint of Alex, the lover of Monica, a woman who was also a girlfriend of Derek, Christy's brother. Throughout Christy's narrative, we have been led to believe that Monica was murdered by Derek; years later, Alex says he saw his ex-girlfriend alive only a few weeks ago. Christy's fictions, the partialities which despite their incompleteness nevertheless dictate her reality, exist beyond the pages of her stories (which, in the course of her narrative, begin, like Allan's own, to be published piecemeal). "Sapphire revealed itself to me only gradually," Christy writes, "a town within a town, nestled in the shadows of my birthplace as the truth of a thing likes concealed within its outward appearance" (p. 91).
Christy lives in Hastings; so does Allan; in this way, so does Jenna. Allan's science fiction makes explicit the genre's tendency towards weirding consensus reality, towards showing in relief those parts of our own societies we take for granted. So, too, however, does her literary fiction, which sits side-by-side and in between her SF. In the contemporary world, Alex muses movingly on his experience of racism:
He had no idea if the individuals who called him nignog or golliwog had ever heard of the slave trade or the Biafran war. He hoped in a way they had not. If they knew of such things and still didn't give a shit he'd have to feel embarrassed for them too, as well as hating their guts, and these were feelings he didn't want to find space for. (p. 158)
This is good stuff, and it is again Alex who describes the worlds of Christy's stories as "familiar in some ways, but . . . also strange" (p. 153). His is the shortest and yet in some ways the most important section of the novel, because in these ways it makes clear that its Russian doll structure isn't fancy or whim, but rather embodiment of purpose: sf or literary, Jenna or Christy, Sapphire or Hastings . . . for Allan, it doesn't matter. What matters, instead, is truth and empathy. That dog and its runner, "like one tank of water that happens to get divided between two separate containers" is a motif of the novel (p. 18), an image of both breaking down and of sharing, of seamless—of imperceptible—transference. The Dels of the world, who jealously guard themselves out of pride or vanity, are destructive forces—like a fracking government—because they seek to own and partition, rather than hold all in common.
Del's punishment comes in the shape of his missing daughter, Maree, kidnapped by parties at first unknown, ostensibly to provide surety for an unpaid debt. Allan's fourth and final part returns to this girl, last seen in part one and now a good deal older—and, for all intents and purposes, again in a different world. She appears to be in Scotland, or at least northern England; she also appears to revel in obliqueness. She spends a lot of her narrative in transit—on ships followed by mysterious whales which may or may not offer some sort of parallel for the characters, worlds, and plots which echo and reflect each other in not entirely clear ways throughout the novel. Hers is a militarized future of anonymous basecamps and fearful but resigned soldiers; of willed amnesia and dislocation from self. At least Jenna had Romney; Maree has Crimond and Farris, Charlemagne and Lilyat—place-names from a fantasy novel. This generic slippage is everywhere, and yet, as we've seen, not as significant in terms of what is represented as it at first might seem. "When a familiar word is spoken with a new intonation," Maree asserts, "a dog will hear it as a different word entirely" (p. 182). But it isn't. Listen more carefully.
All of which is a reviewerly sleight of hand, a smokescreen to obscure my knocked-blindness. The Race guards its secrets: what are the whales, who was the runner Jenna made gloves for, is Christy the writer of Sapphire, is Maree meaningfully in the world of Del? Each reader might have theories, but they will depend upon which story, which mode, is given most weight. Your reviewer can provide a tip, but won't take a bet. Maree's shipmates pick up unintelligible radio broadcasts: they are "too far away—not in terms of distance, but in meaning" (p. 243). Worlds can be separate from one another. The magic of writers like Nina Allan is in the mysterious destruction of that distance. The Race will, as the best fiction should, have your compass spinning.
Dan Hartland blogs at http://thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.