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Twenty Eighty-Four

by Innes Hamilton

(The Book Guild Ltd, £14.95, 239 pages, hardback; published 1992.)

I don't know what's more surprising: cover scanthat someone should even attempt to pen a sequel to George Orwell's iconic novel, or that such a book should find its way into my local library. Well, either way, this was a challenge not to be refused.

Fair's fair -- Twenty Eighty-Four is only really a sequel to Nineteen Eighty-Four inasmuch as it's a thematic sequel, and it's only a thematic sequel inasmuch as its themes are the absolute polar opposites of those of its predecessor. The book, it very soon transpires, is less a work of science fiction and more a kind of promotional treatise on the notion of One World Government. This, I think, is the first and largest conceptual problem with the novel. After all, the government itself was the chief villain in Orwell's fable; nevertheless, Hamilton seems earnestly to believe that the solution to all the world's ills is an even larger government. Perhaps "earnestly" isn't quite the word. He seems to believe in the intrinsic good of a World Federal Government without the least shred of doubt or cynicism, which only makes it harder to take Hamilton's didactism seriously, since this reader has more than enough doubt and cynicism for both, and found it increasingly difficult to believe that Twenty Eighty-Four was not some phenomenally deadpan work of satire.

Our hero, who is served Commendations with every meal, and at whose feet women throw themselves with astonishing frequency and candour, has joined the World Peace Force for only the best reasons; fortunately for the world, so has every other recruit. I'll swear there was the hint of a plot burgeoning in Chapter 9, but after a brief resurgence around Chapter 16 it disappears without trace. Hamilton takes the innovative step of wrapping it up in a postscript, and the rest of the book is largely taken up with characters agreeing with each other about what a wonderful, harmonious place the world is nowadays, and with whistle-stop history tours of the world's most federally successful holiday destinations. It's a touching image, but not the basis for an interesting story, and certainly no way to fill up two hundred pages.

How did this utopian state of affairs come about? Details aren't entirely forthcoming; apparently everybody suddenly saw "common sense" at some point, but that's about all Hamilton is prepared to say on the matter. Paradise is not, however, without its paradoxes. The World Federal Government, for example, is alleged to be without religious bias, yet Christian grace is said at each evening meal against a mural of Noah's floating zoo, while the Vatican holds its own seat at the decision-making table. Israel isn't a problem, though, because Jerusalem's been declared an open city, and the Gaza Strip has been given back to the Palestinians, while Britain resolved the Northern Ireland problem some years before simply by leaving, and taking the loyalists out with it. See, it's easy when you know how.

Then again, the tone, along with the scene, is pretty much set by the statement early on in the novel that "British trains were running on time".

This reluctance to deal in depth with the more prickly political issues of the modern world is matched by an ear for names made quite unashamedly of tin. Our 'everyman' hero's name is Jakko Mann; the first member of his unit to die in action is, we are told, "named appropriately Susan Innocence"; the Zimbabwean member of the World Executive, who delivers two entire chapters of expiation, has been amusingly christened Nelson Banana II; but best of all in my opinion is the world's most renowned conductor, the Mozambiquan composer of 'The Saving of the Elephants' -- Mr Mandela Moses.

It's easy to poke fun, of course it is. But some books make it easier than others. If you should stumble across a copy of Twenty Eighty-Four, take the time to appreciate the efforts of an author whose heart is undeniably in the right place, but whose brain appears to have taken a few days off sick.

Review by John Toon.

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