Simon Ings's fifth novel, The Weight of Numbers, makes for a frustrating descriptive experience. Its plot—if such a thing can even be said to exist—is a tangle of yarn. Tug at it at any point, and you'll find a beginning. We might start with Anthony Burden, an emotionally troubled mathematician. Or with Kathleen Hosken, a sheltered, naive village girl. Stacey Chavez, former child star and lifelong anorexic. Saul Cogan, sixties radical turned human trafficker. Nick Jinks, all-around layabout and ne'er-do-well. The list goes on. Start from any one of these characters, and a series of coincidences, chance meetings, and surprising connections will lead you, one by one, to the others, passing through three different time periods and four different continents, and touching on subjects as diverse as communism, anorexia, the civil war that ravaged Mozambique during the eighties and early nineties, the history of Electro-Convulsive Therapy, Mexican masked wrestling, the Apollo space program, London's counter-culture scene in the late sixties, and obscure philosophical societies.
Certainty is the thread that ties these disparate storylines together, the one quality that all these vastly different people have in common. At one point or another over the course of their lives, each of Ings's characters believes themselves to possess a single philosophy, ideology, approach or system that will allow them to make sense of the world. It might be a way of avoiding life's pitfalls and making correct decisions—clever Kathleen tries to puzzle out the intricacies of bustling wartime London, and her own confusing desires, by taking a strictly analytical approach, formulating theories and testing them; Stacey Chavez believes happiness can be found in control, and risks her life in her quest to control even her body's physical urges; Stacey's mother Deborah, the victim of a brutal childhood assault, lives a sheltered, fearful life, convinced that beyond the walls that shelter her lurk monsters and terrible dangers. Other characters put their faith in a scientific theory or discovery—a pioneer of Electro-Convulsive Therapy uses his technique unsparingly, as a catch-all cure for any psychiatric illness (including homosexuality), and Anthony Burden becomes obsessed with a heavenly vision of a world made of numbers, regulated by equations and formulas. Finally, there are those characters who steadfastly insist that they have the cure to the world's ills—an ideology, a system of thought and government that will finally put an end to corruption and the tyranny of the strong over the weak. As Anthony's young wife, Rachel, the daughter of bourgeois Jewish refugees, smugly muses: "When the revolution comes, she will be able to make everything clear to [her parents]. With humour and compassion, she will show them, step by step, why she is right and they are wrong." (p. 183)
Disillusionment inevitably follows, as Ings's characters discover that the world is not a rational place and that their schemes for fixing it, or moving through it painlessly, are doomed to failure. The Weight of Numbers describes the spectrum of the characters' different reactions to this discovery, which range from denial and a desperate clinging to the ordered system that has given their lives meaning, to a complete renunciation of rationalism. But neither approach—the rational or the irrational—can offer Ings's characters a measure of contentment. One by one, their desperate desire to make sense of the world leads them to insanity, grief, and death.
"Reason cannot comprehend reality, and fantasy cannot manipulate it. This is the lesson Kathleen has drawn from life. Reason and fantasy are two sides of the same bent key. They unlock nothing. They reveal nothing. Step into the world expecting magic; cause and effect will crush your every expectation. Look at the world objectively, and everything before you turns fantastical and absurd." (p. 112)
Although its spider-web structure is reminiscent of the novels of David Mitchell, particularly 2004's Cloud Atlas, The Weight of Numbers is not a playful or a flashy novel. There are no lightning-quick, midair switches between genre and voice here. Ings's language is sober and restrained, but this elegance is a trick played on the readers, meant to lull them into a false sense of security. The carefully controlled narrative of the characters' humdrum, unremarkable lives is repeatedly punctuated by descriptions of great beauty or terror, intended to elicit sighs or shudders—moments of high emotion that shock the characters out of their complacency, and us with them. The invasion, by an apartheid-backed death squad bent on rape and butchery, of a village in Mozambique. Stacey Chavez's skeletal, inhuman body ("the gap at the top of her thighs is so wide, were I to put my fist between them, I doubt we'd even touch", p. 387). Londoners during the blitz congregating in a bombed, roofless library, quietly exchanging books. The frozen corpse of a sailor, locked into the Antarctic ice. A pilot in a damaged plane, flying over the ocean in the middle of the night with no radio, no instruments and no lights, making his way back to his carrier by following its faintly luminescent wake. Rotting, inedible fruit hanging off the trees in an orchard after its caretaker dies.
"The skins of the plums split and dropped of their own accord, leaving balls of pulp to drip-dry in the autumn air. The pulp was not white now, but the brownish yellow of diarrhoea, and it was not tasteless; it had the corrupt sweetness of spoiled meat. Wasps gorged on the useless fruit. They smothered each soft dung-ball with a broiling, black-orange carapace. Then, as evening approached, drunk and dying from the season's cold, they would crawl away into the house. A moment's inattention, and they would fill your shoe, your slipper, a fold of your sock. Objects had to be examined from all sides before one dared take hold of them. Dressing of a morning, Dick would shake each piece of his and his son's clothing from his window and Nick, listening carefully, heard the husks of the stricken wasps bursting on the flagstones of the path." (p. 243)
Although Ings has previously written straightforward SF, The Weight of Numbers is largely naturalistic, taking place in the here and now featuring no fantastical technological advances. It is SFnal in the same sense that M. John Harrison's 1992 novel The Course of the Heart (which it strongly resembles in its bleak beauty) is a fantasy. Harrison's novel is a brutal, uncompromising screed against the central tenet that informs many of the genre's major works—that any one of us can be the main character in a vast epic quest, and that one day we will be swept off into a great adventure. Ings's novel is similarly an attack on science fiction's core assumption—that the world is reducible to a finite and understandable problem, which can then be solved by the application of reason, logic, and science. Like Harrison, Ings describes characters trapped between two extremes, neither of which offers a chance of happiness. Where Harrison's insight into his characters causes us to recoil from them, however, Ings chooses compassion. For all their errors, mistakes, and sins, in spite of their poor choices and unpleasant personalities, Ings never lets us forget his characters' humanity. He offers them forgiveness and understanding, and we follow his lead. Dr. Pal, who fried the brains of at least two men in his zeal to test his revolutionary technique, might have been a monster in the hands of another author. Ings makes him pitiable. "I was a young man then," he querulously offers as his only explanation to an inquisitive reporter, calling to ask whether Pal's treatments were responsible for the premature termination of Anthony Burden's promising career. "Now I am old." (p. 405)
At the center of the spectrum of human reaction to disillusionment we discover Saul Cogan, who may very well be the novel's heart. He is certainly its sole survivor, the one character capable of accepting his own inadequacies and of readjusting his outlook on life. Saul is the only one of the novel's characters who is not, in one form or another, insane. He is neither obsessed with the annihilation of the self, like Anthony Burden and Stacey Chavez, nor crippled by the failure of his youthful ideals, like Rachel and Kathleen, nor haunted by the shadow of the past, like Nick Jinks, nor physically afflicted, like Nick's father Dick and Stacey's mother Deborah. The son of grey, middle-class English parents, Saul decamps to London in the late sixties and finds himself on the fringe of the counter-culture movement, watching with distaste as his friends seek to change the world with absurd and ineffectual protests. He becomes the protege of Jorge Katalayo, the leader of Mozambique's socialist independence movement FRELIMO and an inconvenient moderate—unwilling either to embrace communism as the cure for all his country's ills or to reject it outright (the character is obviously meant to recall FRELIMO's real-life leader, Eduardo Mondlane).
After its Portuguese colonial government is ousted, Saul travels to Mozambique to become a teacher, only to observe the FRELIMO government's political intransigence on the one hand, and pernicious interference from South Africa and Rhodesia on the other, plunge the country into a civil war. Saul emerges from the war jaded but not dispirited. With Nick Jinks, he embarks on a campaign of human trafficking—an endeavor which inevitably ends in tragedy, but which he views as an evening of the beleaguered African continent's score with the Western world: "This time, we are going to do things differently. There will be no attempt at, or expectation of, fair dealing. From our first meeting in 1992 to the operation's collapse in 1999, Nick Jinks and I arranged cross-border transportation for more than ten thousand men, women and children. Ten thousand pioneers, missionaries, merchant adventurers. ... Ten thousand mouths. The West wants to play by the market? Then so will we." (p. 367) In Ings's skilled hands, Saul becomes at the same time heroic and monstrous, a man who has lost his soul but not his conscience, who both despises and clings to his youthful ideals.
The Weight of Numbers begins and ends with former astronaut James Lovell, commander of the beleaguered, nearly doomed Apollo 13. Although the day of the Moon landing holds a special significance for most of the novel's characters—it is for them, as it remains for us, a moment of hope, pride, and a sense of accomplishment—it is Lovell, not Armstrong, Aldrin or Collins, that Ings turns to when he considers the Apollo astronauts. A man whose life has been full of event and accomplishment, who has travelled farther from Earth than almost any other human being, but whose greatest ambition remains, and must always remain, unfulfilled. Ings's novel is a piercing, and deeply compassionate, gallery of portraits of the consequences of ambition and its failure, and Lovell stands in stark contrast to them all. Alone among the novel's characters, he has embraced both the truth of human existence as chaotic and fundamentally insoluble, and the fantasy of life as a linear journey towards a specific destination, a process of arriving at a solution—a mission.
"Missions are like charmed little lives: their purpose is pre-ordained, they are rich in intense experience and (God willing) they end happily. More happily than real life ever can." (p. 50)
Abigail Nussbaum is currently wrapping up a Computer Science degree at the Technion Institute in Haifa, Israel. Her work has previously appeared in the Israeli SFF quarterly, The Tenth Dimension, and she blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.