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Ersatz Nation

by Tim Kenyon

(Big Engine, £9.99, 238 pages, paperback, published June 2002.)

The Unation is a parallel world where most of humanity is subject to the rule of a cover scansupercomputer called Mother Necessity. Patrick Dolan's job for the last twelve years has been to kidnap people from our world on Mother's behalf, for reasons which are not entirely clear at the start of the novel. Selmar Rayburne is trying to overcome the legacy of his father's long-past failed rebellion against Mother Necessity, and at the same time keep his  marriage on the rails. Together they get sucked into a conspiracy to overthrow their entire society.

This book has serious problems with both its setting and its plot. The means and motivation of Mother Necessity are never entirely clear--she can break down and reconstitute living human bodies, and read people's thoughts, yet seems unable to prevent a serious resistance movement. The Unation, though it covers seven continents, appears to be entirely English-speaking and all its inhabitants work in the same time zone as far as we can tell. We are told that Dolan is the only one of Mother's subjects who travels to our world, yet somehow she is able to gather information on people's thoughts here anyway in order to choose people for him to kidnap. Since she is reading his mind regularly, she must be aware that he not only doubts the morality of his own work but has also started having hallucinations of his own dead relatives; yet she continues to send him on sensitive missions.

The characterisation of the two protagonists was sympathetic, and reminiscent of Philip K Dick's small men trying to make the best of a senseless world. But the Unation is such a particularly senseless world that one does not feel the effort is really rewarded. There are loads of good literary portrayals of totalitarian societies with a planned economy, from the real-life examples of the former Socialist world to the American utopia of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: From 2000 To 1887 and the American dystopia of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. None of these seems to have rubbed off on Ersatz Nation.

The denouement was particularly confusing. The relationship between Selmar and his wife shifts into a completely different gear without explanation. A minor character is rescued from a dreadful fate almost before we realise that she is in danger, and with no account of how she got there. And although the good guys do win, it isn't really clear why, or how. Still, this is a first novel; the author does show some promise, especially in his descriptive writing and portrayal of the main characters; perhaps he should aim for a less cluttered background in future.

Review by Nicholas Whyte.

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