"If you look at a broken camcorder for long enough, its original purpose begins to seem obscure. Run your fingers over the mounded black plastic, the exposed lens, clouded now with dust, like a wide, dead eye. There's a maker's name on the handle but you've never heard of them, and it's hard to believe that an object with so little life in it ever did anything. It's an exhausted artefact, a proof of something maybe, but you don't know what of. You wonder if what you're holding in your hand has floated up from the past, or arrived here from the future or from somewhere else.
"When you look at it lying on a rubbish dump with other broken things you feel a deep sadness. Almost as if the world that ever thought to produce such a thing - your own world - has outlived its usefulness."
There are books that come along and rearrange your mental furniture. They so comprehensively inhabit the inside of your head that upon finishing them you worry that you are no longer the same person. Nina Allan's debut novel 'The Race' is one such book for me. It is a novel that challenges what science fiction is and can be. Through a series of stories that echo, reflect and interlock but never explicitly link, 'The Race' explores the themes of communication, empathy and identity. The whole thing is tied together by Allan's luminous prose. The end result is powerful, moving and profound.
'The Race' is made up of four consecutive narrative strands. In the near future in the town of Sapphire, a British seaside town made toxic by fracking, Jenna finds herself more invested in the genetically engineered smartdog races than usual when her brother Del's daughter Lumey goes missing and the only way he has of raising the money to find her is by betting his dog will win. In modern day Hastings, Christy writes stories about the town of Sapphire to process the trauma of her collapsing family. When her brother's girlfriend Linda disappears, she contacts Linda's ex Alex in the hope of discovering the truth. Alex has left Hastings and his past behind him, but is brought back to confront the ghosts of his old life by Christy. And Maree, a gifted child raised in the Croft, a government programme involved in smartdog control, must undergo a dangerous journey across the sea, where she must face the terrifying Atlantic whales before beginning her new life.
At first it might appear like the novel has two sections set in the real world, bookended by two sections set in Christy's fictional world. Jenna's concerns - her aggressive, domineering brother, her absent mother, her dying father, Lumey's lost innocence - echo Christy's, her fears and traumas transmuted into fiction so that she can process and deal with them. However 'The Race' resists such simple interpretations. Allan plays off the assumption that the section set in our real, recognisable world is the default, because of course this is all fiction, and all of the characters are built from Allan's experiences and imagination. This is highlighted by having the more fantastical sections begin and end the novel. The ontological games do not stop there, however. At first it appears as if Jenna's story exists in the recognisable future of Britain. However as more and more details are hinted at, the geography and history becomes more and more unfamiliar. By the time smartdogs are revisited in Maree's section, an entirely new geography has been introduced, as have the Atlantic whales, mysterious creatures said by some to be portals to different universes and possessing a cold alien intelligence.
This is all in aid of the novel's deft exploration of perspective and identity. Christy and Alex's sections appear to take place in our world, and overlap in a more straightforward way. Christy suspects her brother Derek of murdering Linda, and reaches out to Alex to find the truth. However Linda's fate remains ambiguous. Christy and Alex both saw different parts of Linda's story, and because of their different perspectives they come to completely different conclusions. A simple twist of perspective - Christy never seeing Linda again, but Alex bumping into her in the street - is all it takes to change a story from being sinister and frightening to an uplifting story of two people moving on with their lives. Similarly, Alex's memories of growing up in Hastings are very different from Christy's, due to his perspective as a black man growing up between his London and Nigerian heritage. A perspective shift is how Christy has created Jenna's unfamiliar world, by putting a slight twist on her familiar surroundings and life events. At the end of her story, Maree discovers she is Lumey, kidnapped from her family for the smartdog programme. Whilst at first this appears to be a resolution of the original storyline, the names and timings and geography all subtly don't match up; this is another Lumey from another Sapphire, turned kaleidoscopically through another ninety degrees.
Another main theme of the novel is communication and empathy. This is represented by the smartdogs, genetically engineered greyhounds communicated with through mental implants from their human owners. The children in the Croft are able to communicate with the dogs directly without implants. The real purpose of the government's experiments with these children is to translate alien transmissions. The natural empathic communication between the children and the dogs is contrasted with the novel's broken characters, all of whom have difficulty communicating with their families and loved ones. Christy and Jenna wind up isolated from their families, whilst Alex's relationship with Linda disintegrates due to lack of communication. All of the characters find release in their art, the one medium that allows them to communicate the emotions they are unable to process directly. This emotional overspill perhaps explains the communications across strands, the weird moments where the characters appear to make emotional contact across universes.
It is worth paying attention to the books that Allan mentions in the course of the novel. Christy becomes obsessed with 'The Chrysalids' by John Wyndham, another novel about the race of psychic posthuman children who will replace us. Similarly she mentions the Narnia books, which involve travel between different worlds. Alex and Christy bond over a love of John Cheever's short story 'The Swimmer', which hinges on a perspective change, the mind of the protagonist shaping the environment he travels through. These references act as signposts, hints to the savvy reader which give us insight into the themes and structural games Allan is playing.
I originally read 'The Race' in the NewCon Press edition. The Titan edition from 2016 adds an extra section at the end, an appendix entitled 'Brock Island'. This section follows another Maree, turned through another kaleidoscope turn, returning to Brock Island for the funeral of her friend Dodie who she traveled with on her original journey, where she discovers the work of Laura Christy, a disappeared artist who became convinced she had a twin from another universe. Once again the narrative strands link up thematically but not linearly. Maree's character arc here is the opposite of her decision at the end of her original section. However the themes of communication resurface again, with the implication that the untranslated alien transmissions are actually attempts to communicate from alternate universes. The key to the translation, and perhaps to the novel's recurring images, are provided by the sequences of an abacus in one of Christy's paintings, art achieving here what the intellect cannot.
'The Race' calls to mind some of the more ambitious explorations of the spaces between fantasy and reality, in particular 'The Affirmation' by Christopher Priest and M. John Harrison's Viriconium stories. However what is most striking about it is its originality. In its exploration of the power of art to imagine alternate selves, to reveal the shifting and changing narratives we use to give ourselves the illusion of continuous selfhood, 'The Race' tells us something profound about reality and our relationship to it. We are all inhabitants of our own individual alternate universes which may touch but never truly link up. With any luck, and with the help of great art, perhaps we can successfully communicate across them.