Parallel worlds, or the Multiverse theory, feature prominently in recent Scottish writing. The best known examples are Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and Iain Banks’ The Bridge, two books where real life runs parallel to another, more fantastic, although often dystopian world, with the central character inhabiting both. Andrew Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia is another example to add to the list.
Set initially in a recognisable 20th century Scotland, Robbie Coyle’s story also takes place in a military-controlled fantasy future. The past is cloaked in nostalgia for an ideal and idealised childhood, which most readers will identify with to some degree, while the future examines what pressures come to bear on an individual once that childhood ends. The former is fantasy set in reality, the latter a harsh reality set in a fantastic world, and Crumey uses this device to ask interesting philosophical, political, scientific and moral questions.
It’s a structure that initially poses a problem as Crumey’s depiction of Robbie’s childhood is so vivid you may be tempted to linger there. The young Robbie obsessed with space and dreams of becoming a cosmonaut – a particular stance swayed by his fervently socialist father. Crumey sees the world through a child’s eyes quite beautifully, inviting long forgotten memories and musings to come to the fore. These include believing your parents are not who they say they are, trying to understand why certain family rules apply only to you, and the confusing approach of lust and attraction from an already uncertain adult world. Robbie struggles to come to terms with his growing up, armed only with his increasingly vivid imagination.
Just as we are getting comfortable in Robbie’s childhood, he and we are suddenly thrown into the future. Although jarring at first, you begin to get your bearings when you realise this world just as involving if much more threatening. It is a society where paranoia rules, something the state openly encourages and supports. Robbie still dreams of going into space and is competing against other candidates to fulfil his ambition. Many tests and tribulations are placed in his way, in all aspects of his life. Sex, for instance, is used as collateral, to blackmail, and sometimes even more bizarrely. Without going in to details here, the phrase “I think I saw the Red Star” may be one you use in the future.
It could be read as a warning against the communism that Robbie’s father desires, but I don’t believe Crumey is being that specific. Rather, this is a warning of how the individual can be controlled and suppressed by any government that professes to act for the greater good, and Robbie finds himself having to break their rules to survive. The comparison with Iain Banks is a particularly apt one as Crumey not only shares his sense of humour but also his political rigour, and like The Bridge, Sputnik Caledonia tests free will against state control.
It is a novel which is as ambitious as the young Robbie Coyle himself, and similarly threatens to fail at times, but when you reach the unexpectedly emotional finale you are in awe that Crumey has, once again, pulled it off. When taken with his other novels Pfitz and The Secret Knowledge, it could be argued that Andrew Crumey is not only one of the most interesting and challenging novelists around, but one of the very best. He may be your new favourite writer; you just don’t know it yet. Universally approved.
*This review first appeared in Gutter Magazine
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