Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce
The last book by Adam Roberts that I read, Yellow Blue Tibia, I did not enjoy. At all. So I was a little dubious about reading this one until I saw the cover, and I am willing to admit here and now that in this case at least, the cover totally sucked me in. An art deco sensibility is definitely the way to at least make me interested in starting your book.
And then I read the blurb, and decided that this could indeed be a book for me.
One of the great answers to “how would you change the world” in stereotypical beauty pageants is, aside from world peace, an end to world hunger. It’s something that writers of near-future science fiction occasionally deal with: do we get awesome new genetically modified wheat? Do we farm algae in the seas? Do we ship everyone off-planet? Roberts suggests something entirely different: create a bug that, once ingested, turns human hair into a light-gathering factory. That is, allows it to undertake photosynthesis.
Et voila! Hunger solved! As long as you have access to sunlight. And as long as you have hair long enough to catch enough sun.
Marvellous! But, now that all of those people over there are no longer starving, how do the fancy people over here prove that they are still at the top of the social scale? Easy: they eat real food. Also, they shave their heads.
It’s a bizarre world that Roberts imagines, in some ways: people lying around quite literally soaking up rays, the changed language that reflects changes in society, and so on. But, most frighteningly and tellingly, actually this future world is a lot like our present one. Maybe worse. There are haves and have-nots, at all points on the spectrum; there is discontent, both individually and collectively; there are power struggles, and cultural misunderstandings.
The novel begins as a family drama, when George and Marie’s daughter, Leah, is kidnapped while they are on a family skiing holiday in Turkey. (George and Marie are skiing; their children stay with their nanny in the designated children’s play area, and get brought out when the nanny is summoned to do so.) Their experience with the local authorities is frustrating to say the least, no ransom is demanded, and the outlook is bleak – until George finds someone willing to undertake an investigation on their behalf. Dot explains why children are sometimes kidnapped: the energy from New Hair is not sufficient for a pregnancy. So either women have to get food somehow as a supplement, or … they get themselves a pre-made one. As it were. While there are indications before this event that this brave new world is not a perfect one for everyone, this is the first big crack, suggesting that the worst of human nature can still exist even when one of the major crises is lifted. This whole experience also reveals some of the cracks in George and Marie’s marriage, and they just keep getting bigger.
Just less than half the novel is taken up with George’s story – losing and eventually finding Leah, everyday life as a rich man in New York, his friendship with various people and a slowly developing interest in not continuing as normal. His perspective is rather abruptly abandoned in favour of a short vignette from Leah’s perspective, which confirms what the reader has already suspected fairly early on (um, mild spoiler?): she is not Leah. Thanks to this insert the reader is given a brief, fascinating glimpse into life in a village somewhere in Turkey (maybe; the geography is unclear), where New Hair is how people survive and power games have shifted accordingly. And this is contrasted with her experiences as the pampered daughter of a rich American family, which is of course rather stark.
The rest of the novel is divided between two more perspectives: that of Marie, George’s wife, a fairly shallow woman floating along on her own indulgences; and that of a girl living with New Hair, in a no-account little village, who ends up leaving her village and commensurately its protection and familiarity. The comparison between these two is striking, and says a great deal about power, expectations, and the impact of an individual’s choices.
Am I glad I read it? Yes indeed. While it’s by no means action-packed, the plot does move along at a steady pace, even though the events could sometimes be regarded as trivial; when the focus is a single family struggling with grief, interactions with doctors and friends and a daughter returned naturally assume significance. And just like ordinary life, these events are taking place against a background of seriously geopolitical events, if the reader cares to pay attention. Of the characters, George starts off like Konstantin in Yellow Blue Tibia – annoying and self-centred and self-pitying – he improves as a human in general, plus his interactions with people also make him more interesting than he initially seemed. I cannot say the same for Marie – she never becomes a person I would want to know – but her perspective provides a crucial, and crucially different from George, view on the world. And finally, exploring how a world so different from ours, without hunger, can still be so much the same, is a sobering reflection on human nature. One that I rather hope need not prove true.