I know there are a sizable number of SF fans, critics, and commentators out there who despise the term "speculative fiction" for being altogether too woolly, too touchy-feely, a convenient catch-all that contaminates the genre with all kinds of suspect material that doesn't satisfy the more rigorous standards they would call upon to define "real" science fiction. Given that in terms of actual on-the-ground physics we're currently closer to being able to perform alchemy than we are to achieving faster-than-light travel or its practical equivalent, I have always tended towards the opinion that speculative fiction is a more accurate and honest description of what we mean when we use the acronym SF.
For what are we doing when we read or write science fiction, if not speculating? And why should our speculations about the human experiment remain confined to the realm of hard science when there are wide vistas of politics, sociology, spirituality, and indeed creativity to speculate about as well? What is science in the end but the art of knowing?
Luckily for the SF readership, James Smythe's novel The Testimony generously satisfies both sides of this argument. It is beautifully written, takes risks with form, speculates adventurously and productively across the whole gamut of scientific, political, spiritual, and sociological possibilities. And yes, we could get there from here, no question at all. Indeed readers of The Testimony could rightly be forgiven for mistaking whole chunks of this work of fiction for next year's news headlines.
The premise of The Testimony follows a classic science fiction recipe: take a familiar setting and change one key thing. The setting in this instance is more or less the world as we currently know it. The novel is set perhaps a decade from now, in a time where people still talk about 9/11, the London 7/7 tube bombings, and the Obama presidency as recent history and with the socio-political stand-off between the USA and the Middle East still very much in evidence. Into this familiar milieu Smythe introduces a phenomenon that comes to be called The Broadcast, a mysterious emanation of what initially sounds like radio static, and then in its two subsequent manifestations a disembodied voice. What the voice says is heard simultaneously by almost everyone on the planet, and from the moment of that first burst of static, the world's political, social, and religious institutions are thrown into turmoil. People of faith see The Broadcast as a triumphant vindication of religious values. Scientists, dismissing the Voice of God theory, set about trying to discover where in the physical universe the transmission might have come from, subjecting it to various technical analyses, all of which prove fruitless. After a spate of terrorist bombings in American cities, the US government rapidly concludes that The Broadcast is some kind of secret weapon. In a scenario that feels disturbingly familiar, the White House Chief of Staff Andrew Brubaker explains to a journalist how America was compelled to take a stand:
This guy thought he had something, and I wanted to prove to him that he didn't, so I answered. The government of Iran refused to hand over the criminals responsible when we requested them, and we had warned them that if they didn't, we would be forced to retaliate, and then we did. Yeah, and I understand that, he said, but did you have evidence that the government even had the criminals? . . . Because we've been doing this with Iran for years now, haven't we? Assuming things? . . . I didn't say anything, because I didn't have an answer. (p. 127)
What follows over the three hundred remaining pages of the novel is an extrapolation, a speculation both logical and imaginative, of what happens next. The idea sounds simple, but Smythe's way of telling his story is engagingly complex, and in a market that clamors for obviousness over ambiguity, clearly delineated plots over diverse interpretations, Smythe has taken a considerable risk in delivering not one but close to two dozen separate narratives, shuffling them like a deck of cards and then dealing them out to us seemingly at random. One of the defining features of The Testimony, and one of its chief pleasures, is that the book demands attention from the reader right from page one. We are introduced to a lot of people in relatively few pages. We have no way of knowing at first which, if any, of these individual narrators will turn out to be a major player, let alone who might be a "hero" or a "villain." To a considerable extent, Smythe seems to be inviting the reader not just to choose their preferred protagonist, but to create their own story. As well as the White House Chief of Staff, we are offered recurring glimpses into the lives of a gay British MP, a Home Counties businessman, a prisoner on Death Row, an overworked hospital doctor in Bankipore, an Israeli political speech writer, a Florida high school student, a professional gamer living in Shanghai, an unemployed drifter from Moscow, a linguistics expert in Marseille, and a scientist working for the US government—to name but a few.
A writer who insists on thus fracturing the narrative—in homage perhaps to the "mosaic" technique employed by John Brunner in his 1968 classic Stand on Zanzibar—will always run the danger of diluting the tension, of never allowing the reader's sympathies to crystallize or become fully engaged. The Testimony cuts a neat swathe through such objections, and the core achievement of this skilfully constructed novel lies in Smythe's near-perfect handling of the many disparate voices of his long cast of characters. Their responses to the escalating crisis are realistically varied, idiosyncratic, often selfish, sometimes dangerous, occasionally heroic, and always convincing. People dither; sometimes not a lot happens for quite a few pages while everyone waits to see what will occur next. Some characters engage in blinkered acts of the most terrible destruction. Others, Tory MP Simon Dabnall, for instance, defiantly oppose the madness by opting out of it:
Then I quit, I said. We've let the Americans bomb a country that hadn't done anything wrong, we've got riots and protests all over the country . . . people are dying for no bloody good reason, and we're talking about it the same way we fanny about discussing every other bloody thing that crosses our desks. We never get anywhere, with everything we just bide our time until we have to make decisions. I think we've proven exactly how useless we are, so I quit. . . . I went home before the paps turned up, didn't put the news on. Instead I cooked a crispy duck from the freezer that I had been saving, finished a book on Orson Welles that I'd been putting off before because I never had time. (pp. 182-3)
Smythe manages to make us feel a measure of sympathy for everyone we hear from—and when "everyone" includes a Fox News anchorman that is no mean feat. None of the narratives feels superfluous or dull, and as the novel as a whole moves forward it becomes increasingly clear that these are not, after all, isolated stories, that what The Testimony actually demonstrates is a kind of butterfly effect in operation, with incidents impacting each on the other in a manner that could not have been predicted at the outset. Threads of narrative that posed as stage dressing turn out to be vital components of a bigger picture, and characters who seemed to have no initial connection to each other come together in surprising ways. Smythe's portrayal of the mounting political impasse and rapid escalation of one-sided hostilities is deeply chilling and completely believable, with the mosaic narrative being particularly effective here in granting the action a "real-time" feel. Smythe's progression from the actual to the fantastic is so sure-footed that we are persuaded to cross that borderline without even noticing it.
Smythe's writing is carefully crafted without being showy. There are no stylistic fireworks, but equally there are no cumbersome metaphors, no embarrassing misjudgements, no amateur dramatics. Instead, Smythe writes clearly and with admirable restraint about the philosophical and practical minutiae that constitute everyday lives. He does not so much fabricate as build, as a master cabinetmaker builds, with precision and a love of craft, a piece that is meant to be used and is made to last. Smythe's multiple testimonies feel earned. They have the unconscious rhythmic beauty of a good vox pop, the mystery and unselfconscious elegance of found documents.
The Testimony is not perfect. As I came towards the end of the story, I couldn't help asking myself if its resolution was not, in the end, just a little too easy. The novel argues a strong truth, that it is in the nature of human beings not simply to adapt to change but to restore the status quo as swiftly as possible—indeed it is this capacity for getting used to things that has ensured our survival. So it is that Dominick Volker, a drug dealer in Johannesburg, quickly adjusts to the new circumstances and turns them to his advantage:
If one thing never fucking changes it's an addict. I did that whole thing, you know: I'm out, I've lost my wife and kid, all that, but that didn’t stick, because it was there, waiting for me. Everybody was in pain, and they wanted medication. I had a garage full of stuff to sell. I didn't hear from most of the dealers, so I sold it myself. I sold the house, bought an apartment in Yeoville, started selling from there. You hear all these stories on the news, about mompies turning their lives around after The Broadcast, but nobody ever actually does, nobody changes. It's not in our nature, I don't reckon. (p. 378)
Hameed Yusuf Ahmed, an imam in Leeds, argues tangentially that it is the larger truths that will help humanity make sense of things, that the human quest for truth and meaning should continue, in spite of all that has occurred and even because of it:
The door was locked with a padlock that I didn't have a key to—the actual lock was melted away, the door splintering and charred—so I climbed the little wall at the side, let myself in through the door at the back that was still intact, let myself into the library-office. The books were still whole; the room was fine, exactly how I left it. All those teachings, bigger than me, more important, were still fine, somehow survived the fire. I went into the main room, all alone, and I started to pray. (p. 380)
It is true that a billion people have died, that every one of our testifiers has lost someone or something, that the course of their lives has been altered forever. And yet they do find other, ultimately more satisfying lives, remarkably quickly amongst the chaos. They are never without food and shelter, never too close to personal physical annihilation. The most terrible violence always happens off screen, and even when the violence has subsided we as readers are not allowed much access to the most stricken areas; we barely glimpse the homeless, the starving, the millions whose lives must by necessity not so much have changed course as come to a juddering standstill or even worse. We hear no voices out of Iran once the radioactive dust has settled. We are not told of any efforts that might be being made to assist the helpless and innocent victims of the nuclear strike. As readers we might feel relief for characters who find sanctuary and fulfilling companionship on a Brecon smallholding, and on the level of story the narratives' endings have in common a gratifying hopefulness. If we feel inclined to speculate further, however, it could be that we will end up less satisfied. We may sense Smythe's near future got off too lightly.
In the end though there is infinitely more to praise here than to blame. Most importantly, Smythe's novel demonstrates that "real" science fiction can deliver fine writing along with the speculation, that it can (and should) rejoice in a literary sensibility as well as presenting a forum for ideas. While Smythe is clearly very much in love with SF, he has shown himself equally committed to perfecting his art. His is an important and exciting new voice in speculative fiction, and if this is what he can do now, I can't wait to see what he might be doing in ten years' time.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared in Best Horror of the Year #2, Year's Best SF #28, and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012. Her story cycle The Silver Wind was published by Eibonvale Press in 2011, and her most recent book, Stardust, will be available from PS Publishing in 2013. Nina's website is at www.ninaallan.co.uk. She lives and works in Hastings, East Sussex.