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Oliphan Oracus

by Oliphan Oracus by Neil Robinson

(Immanion Press, £17.99, 264 pages, hardback, published April 2004.)

Review by John Toon

An accident in a lab researching longevity cover scanleaves research assistant Kate Wallis in stasis for 262 years. She awakes to find that, in the wake of a plague of mental illness (dubbed "Strops" for posterity) the British population has abandoned all technology and become a network of New Age tribes living rough in the wilderness.

And that's pretty much it, to be honest. After an initial struggle to adjust, Kate starts an affair with Keef, a shaman (or "television"), a relationship that the blurb tells us "has profound repercussions for his community". It doesn't. Kate's arrival in 23rd century Britain and her integration into the community of Streamside causes some small-scale excitement, but no actual change. Fair enough -- she's under far more of an obligation to adapt to the ways of the locals than they are to hers. But it's a pretty quiet 264 pages -- more of a travelogue than a story. The back cover sets the tone with its "The future would be a nice place to visit -- but would you want to live there?" tagline. Kate tries inexpertly to reintroduce the Streamsiders to science, but it all goes wrong -- how symbolic -- and she gives the idea up. She makes friends and loses them, but all is forgiven. They visit other tribes. There's never any real obstacle, never any feeling of challenge, just the inevitable transition of Kate from modern girl to permanent campsite resident. The overall effect is as bland as the spiceless curries the Streamsiders frequently cook.

At last! Twenty-five pages before the end, Kate and friends go to inspect the Pushbutton Hall of Fame, a mausoleum of lost technology. Something happens! It's a bit late to introduce the plot, but better late than never! Surely in a place like this, Kate will find some clue as to what's happened to humanity, some explanation for "Strops", perhaps an idea of just who Oliphan Oracus actually is? Well ... maybe she won't. It is the most exciting twenty-five pages of the book, and it does more closely resemble a story than anything hitherto, but satisfaction is not forthcoming. Kate and friends make their escape, and the curtain falls without fanfare.

On the plus side, Robinson has devised a sort of future slang for the Streamsiders that gives some credence to the idea that we've jumped forward a couple of centuries. As Kate acclimatises, the odd word of futurespeak slips into her conversation, which is a nice touch. It's not too hard for the reader to make out what's going on, but just exotic enough to add colour. There's the suggestion of future mythology as well, the garbled stories of Kate's era, and these are more difficult to fathom. No meaningful attempt is made to explain them, which may be viewed as a good thing. It does, however, leave us with the enigma of what or who Oliphan Oracus is -- to the Streamsiders he is a mischievous and little-respected deity, although there's no indication of where they got him from -- which is a problem given that the book's named after him. Makes for an interesting title, but with that comes a certain expectation that he's actually going to play a central role in the story.

And finally, the delivery. It's a mix of not-quite POV, omniscient narrator and hey-you author-to-reader chat, and it jars. I don't know if Robinson really isn't a science fiction fan, or if he's trying to appeal to a wider audience by assuming the sort of persona that feels it has to explain SFnal concepts from an outsider's perspective, as though to outsiders. In any event the monologues about how SF (supposedly) portrays the future are intrusive, less than insightful and hold the story back. Worse, however, is the infodump in the second chapter that relates the character of Kate in minute and absurd detail, just in case you wanted to know her favourite band or which sexual practices she hasn't tried or other such irrelevancies. Thing is, in an epilogue the narrator turns to address the reader directly (not for the first time), specifically to raise (and leave unresolved) the question of its identity. This only draws attention to the uneven and often irritating narrative voice -- not that I hadn't already noticed, but Robinson does himself no favours by underlining it. Presumably it was meant to be a devilishly clever parting shot.

At £17.99, I really can't recommend this book. It's beautifully edited, has a fantastic comic-book cover and shows occasional signs of going somewhere, but falls horribly flat. The first few chapters were a real struggle, and there wasn't a pay-off at the end to justify it.

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