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

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

Six Impossible Things - John Gribbin *****

On first handling John Gribbin's book, it's impossible not to think of Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons in Physics - both are very slim, elegant hardbacks with a numbered set of items within - yet Six Impossible Things is a far, far better book than its predecessor. Where Seven Brief Lessons uses purple prose and vagueness in what feels like a scientific taster menu, Gribbin gives us a feast of precision and clarity, with a phenomenal amount of information for such a compact space. It's a TARDIS of popular science books, and I loved it.

Like rather a lot of titles lately (notably Philip Ball's excellent Beyond Weird), what Gribbin is taking on is not the detail of quantum physics itself - although he does manage to get across its essence in two 'fits' (named after the sections of Hunting of the Snark - Gribbin includes Lewis Carroll's epic poem in his recommended reading, though it's such a shame that the superb version annotated by Martin Gardi…

Elizabeth Bear - Four Way Interview

Elizabeth Bear won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer in 2005 and has since published 15 novels and numerous short stories. She writes in both the SF and fantasy genres and has won critical acclaim in both. She has won the Hugo Award more than once. She lives in Massachusetts. Her latest title is Ancestral Night.

Why science fiction?

I've been a science fiction fan my entire life, and I feel like SF is the ideal framework for stories about humanity and how we can be better at it. Not just cautionary tales - though there's certainly also value in cautionary tales - but stories with some hope built in that we might, in fact, mature as a species and take some responsibility for things like reflexive bigotry and hate crimes (as I'm writing this, the heartbreaking news about the terrorist attack on Muslim worshipers in Christchurch is everywhere) and global climate destabilization. These are not intractable problems, but we need, as a species, the will to see that we …