Knopf Canada, February 9, 2016.
Arcadia is essentially a story of time travel, but really it is so much more. The characters move between three incredibly detailed and beautifully rendered worlds – an ancient idyll, a dystopian future, and the intellectual realm of Oxford in the 1960s. These worlds are distinct, yet simultaneous: there is in fact no past and no future. Time travel themes can be complicated, but Pears leads the reader through these time lines with care and ease.
In 1960s Oxford, Henry Lytten is a part of the intelligentsia that includes C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. He is working on his own epic literary masterpiece, entitled “Anterworld.” Inspired by Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney, who wrote the utopian work “Arcadia,” Lytten’s story also describes an ancient world in which his characters live in a land of pastoral peace. Although his fiction mirrors Sidney’s, Lytten’s critique of the poet could also apply to what Pears himself is attempting to do – the levels of authorship create several layers of metafictional interest.
In the future, Angela Meerson is a scientist working to rationalize time travel – she wants to explain it based on principles of physics, using a model of alternative universes to show how people could travel through time without affecting the future or damaging the existing timeline. However, through her research, Angela begins to think that the effects of such travel is more random, and perhaps even whimsical. She believes that we can travel within one universe that contains every possibility, and that even if small things might be altered, the bigger picture remains the same. The technicalities are complicated, but in Pears’ capable hands, the logic is fascinating and easy to follow.
To explain her theory, Angela uses the example of the writer Balzac. By creating a character in one of his novels, he is also creating for that character a complete backstory, or universe. Similarly, Lytten is creating a universe in “Anterworld,” although he is not expecting it to become reality. When his young neighbour, Rosie, stumbles across a portal to Anterworld in Lytten’s basement, she cannot resist entering – and by doing so, she allows the potential of Anterworld to evolve.
There is so much depth to Arcadia, that a summary such as this one cannot do it justice. It is a lengthy novel, but completely worthwhile. While each of the three worlds contain social commentary, Angela’s future society is eerily possible – she lives in a technocratic world in which all of her thoughts and experiments are controlled, until she manages to pass her knowledge on to the “renegades,” the conscientious objectors to the complete rationalization of thoughts and actions. The scientific aspects of the novel are complex, yet readable, and they are combined with many literary references, especially in regards to early utopian works.
Not only is Arcadia’s subject matter a mix of ancient and contemporary, but so is the novel’s format – in addition to the usual ebook and paper formats, the book can also be read in app form. The sections can be read in any order, or from one of ten characters’ points of view. The style is innovative, and not at all gimmicky – it gives readers more options, and more authority over the text. If this is the future of reading, I think it stands a great chance of getting more people involved with reading, in a new, interactive way.
Another important aspect of this novel is the seamless way that it manages to encompass so many genres. It relies heavily on the history of science fiction and fantasy, and of course dystopian fiction, but it also has characteristics of the traditional spy novel, as well as a combination of historical and speculative fiction, all bound together with Pears’ literary style. I feel we are reaching a tipping point in fiction as genres begin to collapse, and we don’t need these false divisions any longer to understand the context of a story. Pears actually discusses this concept at length in a really interesting interview about Arcadia. It is a combination of so many intriguing ideas, mixed together to make something truly new and exciting.
Overall, this novel is really impressive both structurally and in the minutiae of character and world-building, but it is never overwhelming – it’s not only easy to follow along, but also fun. Pears’ ideas are so refreshing and new, making the extensive length of the novel seem almost too short. I have read some of Pears’ earlier work, and his historical novels are wonderful too, but this is something so different and exciting, that I have to strongly recommend it.
I received this novel from Knopf Canada and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.