Reviewed by by Ross Murray
Retromancer is my first dip into the literature of Robert Rankin but it’s definitely not his! Rankin has been a prolific author since his first publication The Antpope (1981). As the self-proclaimed leading exponent of “far-fetched fiction”, Retromancer is Rankin’s thirtieth novel.
Set in 1967, the story is narrated by the teenage Rizla (aka Jimmy Pooley) who appears in all the books of Rankin’s Brentford Trilogy (of which there are nine including Retromancer).
Not all is as it seems for Rizla since returning from his escapades as chronicled in The Brightonomicon. While he’s been away, things in Britain have taken a decidedly German turn for the worse. German bratwurst sausages are being served for breakfast and there’s only German beer on tap in all the local pubs. Rizla however is determined to pursue his life of all things English, which leads to his arrest as a spy and subsequent imminent torture. Luckily he’s saved in the nick of time by Hugo Rune.
In fact Rizla has returned to a world where Germany has won World War II by obliterating America with nuclear weapons.
Rizla plays sidekick to Hugo Rune as hero, a Doctor Who-like figure who knows a lot more than he says and in his own quirky way is able to avert disaster whilst displaying a quick wit, or as the case may be, with a good whacking on the head with his cane. Hugo offers the world his genius and only asks in return that the world cover his expenses.
In between constant meals (Rizla and Hugo eat more than hobbits) and frequent generous helpings of booze – all consumed without paying – Hugo and Rizla set about solving the twelve loosely connected cosmic conundra that will return the future to the … proper future. This of course involves time travel back to 1944. These cosmic conundra include finding a missing scientist who had been searching for the God particle; preventing the theft of the British crown jewels; and encountering a computer with artificial intelligence believing itself to be King Arthur. More importantly the whole situation allows Rizla to sidestep looking for paid employment!
Guided by twelve randomly chosen tarot cards Hugo and Rizla slowly uncover a plot driven by Hugo’s eternal nemesis, Count Otto Black. But in stopping Black, Hugo and Rizla will face an important choice which will decide the fate of the future itself. Add a father and son subplot and Retromancer is thoroughly engaging entertainment.
Rankin has created some wonderful characters here and has an easygoing style to his prose. Rizla is full of equal amounts chutzpah and self-interest. Hugo is both mysterious and likeable. Rankin is in full command of these characters as they play off each other beautifully. The supporting cast (many of which are recurring characters from other Rankin novels) are also worth their weight in gags. The characters have character – fully rounded personalities, contradictory natures, and clear motivations. And these characters are comfortable with each other. They know each other. It really is fine writing and the more I write this review the more I find I’m liking Retromancer.
Rankin plays loose and fast with continuity and suspension of disbelief but the ride is fun. Filled with running gags and Monty Pythonesque absurdities, while frequently breaking the fourth wall (the process of referring to itself as fiction) Rankin knows how to get a laugh, which is no mean feat.
In Retromancer I was expecting a rollicking good time and it delivered in spades. Lately (try continuously) my reading has been confined to more serious-minded speculative fiction, Only a few pages in the book was a breath of fresh air and I was chuckling at tales of Hugo Rune piggybacking George Bernard Shaw to the top of Mount Everest and a statue of Queen Victoria weeping Earl Grey tears.
While there’s an overarching narrative to the novels in Rankin’s Brentford Trilogy, Retromancer is easily enjoyed as a standalone book. For some shits and giggles Retromancer is high-stakes, good old-fashioned fun providing many an out loud laugh and a few inner chortles too.
When next I’m confronted with serious speculative fiction that takes me to places which I care not to go, Robert Rankin will be a top of the list for some comedy relief. Retromancer is a crack-up and an absolute gem of a book.