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The Anomaly (SF) - Hervé Le Tellier, trans. Adriana Hunter *****

It was a pleasant surprise that this excellent novel far exceeded my expectations. This was in part because I thought of Hervé Le Tellier as a ‘literary fiction’ author, which for me generally suggests pomposity and intellectual obscurantism, and in part because it is in translation. With the notable exception of The Hair Carpet Weavers, I’ve generally found translated science fiction to be far too worthy and heavy-handed in its approach, but Adriana Hunter has done a fantastic job of keeping the writing light and gripping.

As for that literary aspect (amusingly, Le Tellier includes a character who writes a book called L’anomalie that is exactly the kind of thing I’d expected), this doesn’t overwhelm the reader because this book is unabashedly science fiction. I find it tedious in the extreme when certain literary authors who write a book that is clearly SF go out of their way to claim that’s not what they write, because they think that science fiction is limited to 'talking squids in outer space'. But what Le Tellier does is exactly what SF should – and why it is such a brilliant genre – it puts people in extraordinary science or technology-driven circumstances, far removed from the mundanity of conventional novels – and observes the impact on those circumstances as human beings.

Here the SF theme is the simulation hypothesis, the idea that we are all just part of a vast computer simulation – The Sims on steroids. This is put forward by scientists in the book as the most likely explanation for a weird happening. An Air France plane from Paris to New York that arrives in March, arrives again in June, with all the same people on it – so there are now two ‘versions’ of all those people.

The book explores both how the people involved cope with this – including all the implications for their families, possessions, jobs, even pensions – and what the authorities decide to do about it.

I was a bit concerned when chapter after chapter Le Tellier gives us the story of a different passenger. I’d recently read another book that used the approach of introducing five different sets of characters, and rapidly lost track of them. Here we get at least nine different threads, plus several sets of characters from the government response side, yet it’s a testament to Le Tellier (and Hunter)’s skill that I never found myself confused over which character was which.

The authority side of the response includes the reactions of key world leaders, notably the presidents of France and America. Although the book was first published in 2020, it is set in 2021, with the correct incumbent of the Elysee Palace named, though oddly Le Tellier assumes a different outcome to the 2020 US election to reality, given it’s very clear who the unnamed occupant of the White House is supposed to be.

What is absolutely fascinating (and why SF is such a powerful genre) is the way we can see how different individuals react in their own, sometimes extremely dramatic way to having to face up to the challenge posed by the situation. This is brilliantly handled. The underlying simulation hypothesis is arguably not science at all (because there is no way to test it, falsify it or use it to make predictions), but that reflects one of the strengths of SF that it doesn’t have to be too fussy about being based on hard science - plenty of familiar science fiction tropes are borderline science at best.

If there’s any weakness here, it’s the ending. I’m reminded of the novels of arguably the greatest ever fantasy writers, Gene Wolfe. Often, after what has been a spellbinding and thought-provoking book, the ending is a bit of a disappointment, because it’s pretty much impossible to come to any satisfactory conclusion. But that doesn’t stop Wolfe from being one of favourite writers – and  The Anomaly is, without doubt, the best SF novel I’ve read this year so far.

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Review by Brian Clegg - See all of Brian's online articles or subscribe to a weekly digest for free here


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