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Super-State: A Novel Of A Future Europe
Orbit hardcover £16.99
review by Christopher Geary
This is expansive speculative fiction. It frames a big picture of diverse elements with a vast array of characters that spills over into the real world of today whenever we recognise an aspect of the political dogma being dissected, or a cultural trait being satirised. Aldiss does not paint a detailed landscape or draw us a map, but he does sketch a broad outline and peoples this fiction with both believable and generally convincing characters, from the highest office of European President and various wealthy celebrities, to the lowliest impoverished peasants, refugee families and (this being SF) android slave labour.
Apart from the deplorable excess and vacuity of rich and famous lifestyles, Aldiss' principal soft targets are shallow politicians and pompous military officers, but he skewers all and sundry with extraordinary precision and a dry wit. From the opening chapter, in which a high society do (a swanky outdoor wedding, at which the absentee bride has a robot stand-in!) is disturbed by a stampede of wild horses, Aldiss presents the surreal threat of chaos at play, during even the most carefully planned and orchestrated events, so it's almost as if the posh folks deserve to be trampled under thundering hooves.
As you would expect, crime is a problem for powerful authority. There's kidnapping, assassination, and terrorism, but Aldiss takes care to show us how easily things can go wrong, or at least end differently, for everyone concerned. So, unexpectedly, the beautiful hostage falls in love with her captor; a media mogul's practical joke results in suicide; and, from around the globe, families get together for festivities - only to part with greater personal divisions than before. The message, so obvious in retrospect of course, is that - shamefully - people rarely ever learn. And yet, we, the readers, may be just as appalled or delighted by eventual outcomes as the characters who are directly involved in them. Such is the true power of great writing.
There are problems with Super-State as a novel, however. Because Aldiss opts for such a large canvas, the sprawling narrative lacks an emotional core or anything that resembles a dramatic focus. This is the literary equivalent of TV channel surfing, with clips from soap episodes edited together with news reports and infotainment shows into a montage effect to illustrate themes rather than tell a 'proper' story. Aldiss chooses to rely on his assorted striking references (mathematics, philosophy, spiritualism, media) to score points. There is a manned mission to Europa plagued by difficulties that resonate with the struggles and moral dilemmas back home.
You will be amused by the conversations between robots about the nature of humanity, and the pragmatic conflation of miscellaneous religious celebrations into a secularist public holiday event determined by calendar proximity. You may guess what ignominious fate befalls the (expected) alien creatures discovered on Jupiter's moon by the overstressed crew of interplanetary spacecraft Roddenberry, and who is sending bizarrely wise agitprop messages to the TV-based Internet under the digital-balaclava of 'Insanatics', but you will still find plenty of pleasant surprises and rather nasty shocks in store here.
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