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Expatria by Keith Brooke
(
Cosmos Books, $15, 181 pages, trade paperback; first published 1991, this edition March 2001.)

Most of the time it's difficult to tell British sf apart from its American counterpart: in cargo-cultish fashion, British sf writers have done their best to imitate the strand of the genre originated by the fixed notions of John W. Campbell Jr, which notions have cover scanshaped American sf for better or worse. However, there has existed alongside this a distinctly British version of mainstream sf, which looks back less to Campbell than, arguably, to H.G. Wells. Whereas Campbellian sf relies for its effect on the use of twinned floods, if not torrents, of event and ideas, this distinct British strain sets the ideas -- which may be every bit as radical -- to play second fiddle to two other elements: first, the actual craft of writing, which includes the grace of the prose and the concentration on character; and, second, a subtext ... what the book is about, as apart from what the tale tells.

There have been many distinguished contributors to this strain of sf aside from Wells: some that come to mind are Keith Roberts, Christopher Priest, Michael Coney (despite his departure from the UK as long ago as 1973), John Wyndham, Edmund Cooper (when on song), J.G. Ballard (in his earlier days, before he struck out to carve a niche all his wonderfully own), Eric Brown, John Christopher ... There have even been a few US writers who have worked along the same lines: George R. Stewart and Walter M. Miller are two.

Keith Brooke's novel Expatria, now deservedly reissued, belongs to this tradition. While some of its events are startling, even approaching the melodramatic, its carefully measured, consciously understated prose eschews any of the customary cheap stunts used by genre authors in an attempt to keep the reader whizzing through the pages. This is a novel that happens to be sciencefictional rather than the escapist whirlwind that is normally implied by use of the term "sf novel". To describe it as gripping would be accurate but would at the same time mislead: it grips because of the reader's absorption in the characters and the significance of the events rather than through any nonstop pulse-racing action. It introduces you to a world which, without your perhaps consciously realizing it, comes to permeate your mind, so that you have to shake your head to return yourself to 21st-century Earth.

Mathias Hanrahan, who believes people should embrace technological ways and exploit all the artefacts still surviving from the earliest days of colonization, is heir to the Primacy of Newest Delhi, capital of one of the two major nations on the planet Expatria, colonized generations ago by the occupants of Space Arks sent out from Earth. The people and governments of Expatria have largely rejected the science and technology their ancestors brought with them, and now live in a sort of progressive-medieval culture. Mathias's father -- the Prime of Newest Delhi -- is murdered, and Mathias is framed for the crime. He flees first to the anarchic city of Orlyons and then to Alabama City, capital of the marginally more enlightened other major Expatrian nation. There he is encouraged in his pro-technology zeal, joining a loose-knit organization called the Project, headed by formalistic but eventually good-hearted bureaucrat Sukui and dedicated to rediscovering the technology of yore for the good of the people.

Fiddling with a radio set, members of the Project intercept radio signals sent optimistically down to the surface by the descendants of those original colonists who elected to stay aboard the Space Arks in orbit around Expatria; just as the surface population of Expatria has never realized such people existed, so the idea that the planet could have a surviving populace has become quasi-mythological to the inhabitants of the Arks. The reason for the attempted -- and consummated -- contact is that the Arks have discovered a new generation starship is on its way from Earth intent on converting all Expatrians, surface and orbital, to a fresh religion.

The sequel, Expatria Incorporated (1992), to this 1991 novel is amply heralded.

Where Brooke scores highly in his world creation is in his handling of religions and religious sects. The organized beliefs depicted here -- though not in detail -- are logical descendants, exogamously combined and then distorted and perverted, of the mishmash sects we see around us today; there are, for example, the Conventists, worshippers of the portmanteau divinity Mary/Deus, and the Death Krishnas. Later a pimp actually invents a new and successful religion -- the Caravan of the Holy Charities ("Now [...] which of the Charities was it you wanted to fuck?") -- which is almost immediately subtly adapted by secular interests to spread the word, in the teeth of the authorities' reluctance to admit this publicly, that the Arks exist and are populated.

A much less successful element of the world creation concerns music. A nice touch is that in straitlaced Alabama City music-as-entertainment is officially frowned upon, so that entertainment establishments are officially classified as workplaces; audiences come to them not to enjoy themselves, you understand, but simply to facilitate the work's being carried out. But that's an aside. More to the point is that the same understanding of the cultural-evolutionary process as applied by Brooke to organized religion is not carried on in the instance of music. The music played by several characters in Expatria, sometimes to great popular approbation, is bluesy rock, much as in the late 20th century and early 21st. It is of course feasible -- just -- that bluesy rock will still be being played hundreds if not thousands of years in the future on isolated and regressed colony planets, and it's likewise feasible that the guitar, drums, saxophone and harmonica will still be instruments of prime choice. But everything we've learnt from history insists that such a mode of music would have become a specialist interest, with the vast mass of the people being devoted instead to some new (and not necessarily better) form. Giving the Expatrian populace the blues is much like feeding an MTV audience Mozart; and surely, by the time of Expatria, today's instruments of popular-music choice are likely to have gone the way of the crumhorn.

The foremost musician in this tale is Mono, and she is also the most beautifully realized of its characters. Her day job, as it were, is as a high-class prostitute; but this career she evidently regards as only a means to an end -- the way of financing what she actually wants to do, which is front a rock'n'roll band. It is a nice touch that Mathias, who loves her as a friend rather than something to screw, is able to use his rudimentary knowledge of the old technology to cobble together for her an electric guitar. The relationship between Mono and Mathias is very sweetly handled.

Throughout, Brooke's tale-telling is superb; only in the last few pages does it fall down, when too much is revealed too quickly -- a fault compounded by the fact that some of the revelations have already made themselves evident to the attentive reader. Until this point there is a lovely steady pacing of the narrative; the final few pages are as disruptive in their effect as if a smoothly, inexorably flowing river had, in its last stages before reaching the sea, suddenly turned into a babbling stream.

All in all, however, this is a completely absorbing novel ... albeit a minor one. The publisher of this edition of Expatria, Cosmos, is not only reissuing two others by Brooke but has a new Brooke novel imminent; one anticipates eagerly.

Review by Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 16 June 2001