Review | Arcadia by Iain Pears

The first thing that told me this book was something a bit different was the opening page. As someone who has a great interest in multi-platform and transmedia explorations in literature, the introduction to a book that has an accompanying app instantly got me a bit excited. I may have even squealed on Facebook about it.

But I’ll get to more about that later. For now, let us say simply that I wasn’t sure what I was going to get out of Arcadia, but it was more than I expected.

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Arcadia is a labyrinth of twisting plots from a handful of key characters. Somehow they are all connected, but no one is quite sure how.

In the peaceful landscape of Anterwold, Jay is to become a Storyteller – the wisest and most revered position in the lands. But perhaps it is his connection to a fairy he met one day that is the reason for his new position than his unending curiosity.

Novelist, professor and former intelligence agent Henry Lytton just wants to mark papers and write his book. His connections to the strange Angela Meerson and the disappearance of a young girl means his life is no longer going to be as quiet as he’d have liked.

The future is run by science and knowledge, controlled by a system that values the intelligence of its people rather than freedom of thought. During an experiment in the search for new worlds that the human race might populate, one scientist discovers that the possibilities for mankind are more dangerous than anyone thought.

And then there’s Rosie, who was just looking for Professor Lytton’s cat…

~

It was about halfway through the book that I truly appreciated the point of this book. Arcadia is, quite simply, an exploration of the joys of literature.

It was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, a prize renowned for identifying some of the very best science fiction in literature published in the UK. Whilst some may expect that the prize is filled with spaceships and aliens, the titles that the award tends to lean towards are of a more speculative nature. Previous winners of the prize have included Margaret Atwood (the first winner of the prize in 1987 for The Handmaid’s Tale), Geoff Ryman and China Mieville. This should give some indication that Arcadia isn’t typical sci-fi fare.

In fact, as genre goes, I’d say this is a particularly difficult one to pin down. Yes, there is speculative science fiction; there is also dystopian, historical, romance, spy thriller, non-magical fantasy and a good dose of Shakespeare. All of these threads weave in and out, much like the separate and tangled plots, to create something that is as much a celebration of the art of storytelling as it is about the follies of mankind. Amongst the clever references to previous literary works (I mentioned Shakespeare, right?), there is a sheer love of the form. The Storytellers of Anterwold are held in the highest regard, turned to in times of need for guidance; and if that isn’t a huge, punch-you-in-the-face metaphor, then perhaps the subtler discussions of creative free-thinking versus scientific certainty will convince you.

That is not to say that these messages and questions of personal principle override what is a very good story – and that is in part the true brilliance of it. Each character in this complex web is clearly defined and wonderfully drawn, with quirks and flaws that give them a depth that pulls you along. That the narrative darts from one place to another isn’t an issue, as you are all too happy to be reacquainted with characters you haven’t seen for a few chapters. Rosie is a truly sweet and remarkable girl and Angela bears enough genius and arrogance that she practically leaps of the page at you.

For its 600+ pages, it has a great pace and I didn’t find my attention drifting through the tricky middle section as I often find with books of this length. The different threads of story are crafted enough that the mind hasn’t time to wander and become complacent with the writing, but instead feels as if a turn of the page reveals something entirely new. (And yet not so new. See Shakespeare… and yes, I’ll keep mentioning it, because the inclusion is brilliant.)

Standing as a novel of paper and ink, it is a wonderful read, and one that I know I will return to and perhaps enjoy all the more. The multi-faceted arrangement and the complexity of some of the theories discussed will probably benefit from a few read-throughs to get your head around it and appreciate it. At least, I hope that’s the case.

If we turn to the app for a moment: as a deeper, unique way of exploring the text, downloading and working through the app was thrilling. And yet I couldn’t help but think that given the sheer length and weight of the book (I was reading the utterly beautiful hardback), it’s a little cumbersome to attempt a read-and-scroll approach, which realistically is required for the fullness of the experience. There are extra snippets of information peppered throughout the app that give insight into the intricacies and the scope of Arcadia. But the app itself is probably best used as an intriguing eBook, rather than an accompaniment to the physical book. To follow the story as suggested by the app maps is almost impossible in the print copy, as there are no markers or guides to help you. I’ve mentioned the threading stories is pretty complicated, right? It seems a shame that this possibility for cross-platform literature isn’t quite pulled off, as it would suit the dimensional quality of the novel well.

Speaking of dimensionality, there seems to be an interesting discussion around books and their place in the digital environment, with a centre of such examination being that of the Fourth Dimension, something that again adds to the depths of Arcadia’s narrative. It seems that as we move forward in the age of the internet, the existential crisis of the book is simply a manifestation of the crisis we are going through ourselves: in what ways do we exist? Who is the ‘real’ me? (If that sounds of interest, I recommend The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Living in a Digital World by Laurence Scott.)

But setting aside the deep philosophical ideas underpinning Arcadia, it is a genuinely fun read, with moments of pure joy that will make you smile no matter your genre-preference. There is enough literary merit for it to grace award shelves, and enough entertainment to appeal to the masses.

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