It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Books you must read: Omega, Christopher Evans

I’ve been a fan of Evans’ novels since reviewing his Aztec Century for Vector, the critical journal of the BSFA, back in 1993. His fiction is a literate, very British sort of sf, which doesn’t rely on flashy spectacle but on in-depth studies of their protagonists and their worlds. Omega, published in 2008 by PS Publishing and Evans’ first novel in more than a decade, is a case in point.

Owen Meredith is a maker of military history documentaries. One day while Christmas shopping with his wife and two daughters, a bomb explodes in Hamley’s. Meredith is outside and only injured in the blast, but his family are in the store and killed.

Major Owain Maredudd is an officer in an Allied army in a Britain that has been at war for over half a century. He had led a mission into enemy territory to test a new weapon, but something went wrong. Maredudd was the only survivor, and his memories of the mission are somewhat confused. As a result, he has been attached to his uncle’s staff. His uncle is the commander-in-chief of the allied forces in the UK and a member of the Joint Governing Council, the military junta that rules the Alliance. He is, in effect, the ruler of most of Europe.

When Meredith wakes in hospital after the bomb blast, he discovers first that at times he somehow inhabits Maredudd’s head, and so witnesses events in the major’s world. And secondly, Meredith’s memories of his life before the explosion don’t quite tally with the life he seems to now have. For a start, he is apparently in hospital because he was hit by a car while crossing the road. There was no bomb blast. And his wife left him several years before, taking the kids, and now lives in Australia.

As Meredith tries to figure out his life and pick up the pieces, so he comes to spend more time in Maredudd’s world. Maredudd himself is having his own problems as there seems to be something going on with his uncle to which he’s not privy but in which he is somehow involved. This is all to do with the secret weapon after which the book is titled. The Americans, once part of the Alliance, are apparently getting troublesome and the Omega weapon is intended to stop them.

Omega is not an easy book to do justice to. It’s an alternate history, inasmuch as part of the story is set in a world still embroiled in a world war. But it’s also much more than that. It’s a study of both Meredith and Maredudd, and their reactions to worlds they find it increasingly hard to fathom. While Meredith also has Maredudd’s world to explore, it’s implied that Maredudd is doing the same to Meredith. Certainly, there are periods when Meredith is strangely absent – though from others’ reactions it seems he continues to function as “normal”. The alternate UK is extremely well-drawn and very convincing, but it is the two protagonists who really carry the book. The writing is plain but elegant, the worlds of Meredith and Maredudd are portrayed with authority, and the novel is an engaging and surprisingly quick read.

I’m surprised Omega didn’t appear on any short-lists back in 2009. It’s certainly a better novel than the four that made it onto that year’s BSFA short-list – Aztec Century, incidentally, won the BSFA Award in 1994 – and it could have been a contender for the Clarke too. Recommended.


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Books you must read: The Bender, Paul Scott

There are comic novels and there are novels of wit. Some novels evince humour by describing ridiculous characters in ridiculous situations; others prefer to amuse through their use of language. Paul Scott’s The Bender (1963) is a novel of wit and its characters, while amusingly drawn, are not comic caricatures. There is also much in the novel that points to Scott’s Raj Quartet, a use of language, voice and narrative that presages The Jewel In The Crown and its sequels.

George Lisle-Spruce is a wastrel. A relative left him a legacy of £10,000, which he cannot touch. But it does provide him with an annual income of £400. Initially, this was more than enough to live on, but by the beginning of the 1960s, George is finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet on his monthly allowance. And now his brother, a successful accountant, wants repaying the £200 he lent George years before. George spent the War in Cairo, and was never in combat. Since then he’s never held down a proper job. He has some charm, but never really made the most of it. And this is despite the best efforts of his Aunt Clara – who is not really his aunt, but whose husband it was who left George his legacy.

The Bender is told from the points of view of George, Aunt Clara, a real aunt who is on her death-bed, brother Tim, and youngest brother Guy (an Angry Young Man, with a play that has been broadcast on television to critical acclaim). The repayment of Tim’s loan precipitates a crisis in George’s life – though it is exacerbated by Clara’s renewed meddling, Tim’s impending change of career, and Guy’s success.

The writing in The Bender is a delight. It’s witty, the voices are handled superbly – though, one, Guy’s hippie chick girlfriend, feels somewhat forced – and a section two-thirds of the way through astonishes with its seamless post-modern blending of narratives and voices. The novel is also a pitch-perfect evocation of time and place, and feels throughout like a 1960s British black and white film starring Dirk Bogarde. Aunt Clara is perhaps the most amusing character – a forceful and opinionated dowager, with old school views about class and ability, views she has a habit of setting forth on tape:

…the Grundig’s microphone in one hand and, in the other, one of the Floris chocolates for which her lunchtime liquid slimming diet always gave her an appetite…

The Raj Quartet are novels of consequence. While The Bender may be somewhat inconsequential, it reaffirms my admiration of Scott’s writing. Fortunately, I have many more of his books to read. Recommended.

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