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Sanity and the Lady

by Brian Aldiss

introduction by Ian R MacLeod

(PS Publishing, £ not advised, 218 pages, signed, numbered, limited edition hardback, also available as signed, numbered, limited edition slipcased hardback, published August 2005.)

Review by Lawrence Osborn

cover scanThis is a very British science fiction novel. It begins in whimsical fashion with something very odd happening to Sir Edgar Laurence, a renowned concert pianist. The action then moves to the English seaside town of Littlehampton where Sir Edgar lives with his privileged and eccentric extended family. It soon appears that Sir Edgar is not the only person to have experienced something odd. Other members of his family also have strange visitations that cause them to act in bizarre ways. The root cause of this behaviour proves to be alien visitors brought to earth by a recent meteorite impact. Besides Sir Edgar's family, these alien visitors have also affected small groups of people in the USA, Canada, France and the Azores.

The central character of the novel (and the lady of its title) is Laura Broughton -- one of Sir Edgar's daughters and a well-known novelist. Like several other family members, her life is disrupted by this visitation. However, she sees the arrival of the aliens as an opportunity rather than a threat and she develops a relationship with one of the visitors.

But what precisely are the visitors? Aldiss remains deliberately vague about this. They are able to communicate with their human hosts but they do not appear to be persons in their own right. The American government designates them 'Virus X' and they do behave rather like the alien mind parasites that appear in science fiction from time to time. However, the visitors refer to themselves as functions and from hints dropped by Aldiss it seems that they are somehow related to the very origins of the Universe itself. Whatever its origins and purpose, Laura's visitor is very interested in what it means to be human. Aldiss presents the visitor as an objective questioning voice in Laura's head, challenging her most cherished assumptions and questions the injustices it sees in the society around her.

As the story develops Laura is drawn away from the safety of Littlehampton and her immediate family circle into the much murkier world of global politics. Reluctantly she becomes a spokesperson and apologist for the visitors in the face of growing xenophobia both at home and abroad. Here the novel reflects contemporary British fears about what is perceived as the growing paranoia of the American establishment post-9/11. The American government is portrayed as willing to murder its own citizens in order to protect the wider society from the threat of this alien 'invasion' and ready to pressure other governments to adopt similar policies. Ultimately they use nuclear weapons to destroy one pocket of alien influence in the Azores.

Laura's high profile position inevitably puts her life in danger and she is eventually kidnapped by agents of the British government who plan to hand her over to the Americans. It is at this moment of crisis that Laura helps the visitor to discover its ultimate purpose and Aldiss unveils his (almost literal) deus ex machina. I must confess I was a little disappointed by the climax: it felt rather contrived.

However, Aldiss has one more surprise in store. Instead of the 'happy ever after' ending one might expect, the novel concludes with a dystopic epilogue set twenty-two years later, which outlines the very profound changes brought about by the climax of the novel. Fortress USA has resisted the influence of the visitors and maintained the American way of life (and standard of living) at the expense of the rest of the world, which has been levelled down to a squalid equality. The stark message of the epilogue seems to be that it is self-delusion to imagine that we can maintain our comfortable standard of living and at the same time ensure that the two-thirds' world gets a fair slice of the cake.

As usual with Brian Aldiss's work, the novel is a pleasure to read: the writing is excellent, there is no padding and the contrast between the safe environment of Littlehampton and the wider world into which Laura is projected gives added impact to Aldiss's trenchant commentary on contemporary politics. In spite of my moment of disappointment, I found Sanity and the Lady a powerful and moving read, and one that I shall certainly return to in the future.

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