Super-State: a Novel of a Future Europe
by Brian Aldiss
(Orbit, £16.99, 230 pages, hardback, published 2 May 2002.)
The last book I read by Brian Aldiss was The Secret of This Book which contains two stories that are so horrible that I will remember them 'til my dying day: 'The Mistakes, Miseries and Misfortunes of Mankind' and 'Horse Meat'. Super-state does not flinch from portraying people at their worst, but thankfully it does so with a rather lighter touch. It is set in a unified European superstate, portrayed through a loose network of relatives, lovers and friends which includes the president, two people who plan to assassinate him, someone on an expedition to Europa, various lovers, newly-weds and sundry others. Quite calmly one chapter, the western coasts of Europe are hit by a tidal wave which inundates land already shrunken by global warming. Oh, there are also androids, who are conscious, treated as machines, but baffled by people's foibles. Indeed the novel is mainly about people's foibles, which are mostly the enduring ones such as love, lust, war, selfishness and greed (and practical jokes). It is splendid to read an SF novel that deals with the problems of humankind seriously and Aldiss relishes in his stature as a writer to write whatever he likes. One thing he likes is to enact unlikely, morbid and somewhat farcical scenarios in a throw away fashion - of course people behave that badly or stupidly when they get an opportunity. The result is highly entertaining but if you want upbeat then read something else.
As a projection of the future I felt that it is less successful. We are already seeing the decline of the power of the nation state and the rise of global power organisations including global corporations. It seems unlikely that Europe will become a state with a fully-centralised power base as portrayed here. Given the last 40 years, it also seems unlikely that technology will develop so little in the next 40. For these reasons you can tell it is a late novel by a modernist, not an earlier novel by a postmodernist.
I don't think Aldiss cares about these issues much here, for the novel's main concern is human nature, which he believes is enduring, particularly in its worst and weakest characteristics. I would love to say that he was wrong. It muses about why people are as they are, but the gleeful depiction of the human condition is better than the musing. Aldiss doesn't know why we are as we are any more than does anyone else. As the book itself discusses at one point, there is great enjoyment to be had in the bad aspects of people. Super-state reads as if it were fun to write, and it is fun to read, but it makes you think too.
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© Richard Hammersley 7 August 2002