Skip to main content

An American Story (SF) - Christopher Priest ****

I’m cheating a tad by reviewing An American Story here, as it’s not really science fiction - but Christopher Priest is one of our leading SF authors, and there are elements of science and mathematics in what is principally a straight novel exploring the impact of 9/11 on relatives of those who were killed, riffing on the experience of loss and the nature of memory.

To do this, Priest makes uses of a mathematician who seems to be involved in a project that draws a parallel between a mathematical conjecture and a psychohistory-like concept where reality is forged from perception. I say ‘seems to’ as almost everything that happens in the book has a dream-like uncertainty. For example, the main character’s mother-in-law claims to have been in a car with his former girlfriend years after she was killed on American Airlines Flight 77.

I usually find books that jump backwards and forward in the timeline really irritating, and Priest does this a huge amount, but given the nature of the topic, the effect just added to the sense of mystery and connections that may or may not be true - although done differently, I was reminded of the way Alan Garner plays around with time in his masterful novel The Owl Service.

This was, then, a fascinating novel, and very readable too for a book that surely could be considered literary fiction. However, I also found aspects of it irritating and disturbing. This started with the probably unintentionally hilarious fantasy that after Brexit, Scotland would benefit financially from coming out of the union, losing its subsidy from England, and would magically get straight back in the EU and be able to pass the economic tests to join the euro.

I also was a little disappointed by the most science-related bits. The main character is a freelance science writer - but he simply didn’t ring true. As a science writer myself, I’ve never come across a real one who like the fictional Ben had no specialisation or apparent expertise. This particularly came through when he interviewed a mathematician, who also spoke totally unlike any mathematician I’ve ever come across, more like a liberal arts lecturer than a mathematician - all indirect and waffly with none of the precision you’d expect. 

The sense of unease came to a head when it became clear that Priest was basing his story on 9/11 conspiracy theories, making the 9/11 event an act of the US government as an excuse for war, and naively blaming every negative thing that has happened since on it. If this had been pure fiction without a basis in real life, it wouldn’t have mattered, but when there are so many real families who suffered as a result, it’s distinctly creepy to impose this on them. In an author’s note at the end, Priest claims to find the conspiracy theories plausible, though he does also seem to acknowledge that they have been comprehensively debunked (I’d recommend reading the book 9/11 Myths, based on the article Priest mentions), which makes me wonder whether the line is more political than down to actual belief.

Despite my concerns, I think this is a really interesting novel and one I would recommend reading, not because I think the conspiracy theories are right, but rather because it does what all good novels do and makes the reader think - even if the resultant thoughts are very different from those that I suspect Priest intended.


Hardback:  

Kindle:  

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Mercury - William Sheehan ****

Driving to work one morning several years ago, I spotted a tiny white dot close to the rising sun. ‘That’s Venus,’ I said to myself. Almost immediately I saw another, much brighter dot a few degrees away. ‘No, that’s Venus – the first one must be, um ... Mercury.’ Even with a lifelong interest in astronomy, I always manage to forget Mercury.

With eight planets in the Solar System, one of them has to be the least interesting – and Mercury got the short straw. That’s a relative statement, though, and a diligent author could still dig up enough fascinating facts about that tiny dot by the Sun to fill a short book. William Sheehan has done a brilliant job of doing just that.

One of the reasons Mercury is so easy to forget is that it’s almost impossible to get a good view of it from Earth. Even after the invention of the telescope, which turned planets like Mars and Jupiter into explorable worlds, Mercury remained a mystery – and the subject of some pretty wild speculations. In 1686, for exa…

Everything You Know About Planet Earth is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

This is the latest of a series of 'Everything You Know About... is Wrong' books from Matt Brown. Although I always feel slightly hard done by as a result of the assertion in the title, as there are certainly things here I know that aren't wrong (I mean, come on, the first corrected piece of 'knowledge' is that 'The Earth is only 6,000 years old' and I can't imagine many readers will 'know' that), it's a handy format to provide what are often surprisingly little snippets of information that are very handy for 'did you know' conversations down the pub (or showing up your parents if you're a younger reader).

Some of the incorrect statements that head each article are well-covered, if often still believed (for example, people thought that world was flat before Columbus), some are a little tricksy in the wording (such as seas have to wash up against land) and some are just pleasantly surprising (countering the idea that gold is a rar…