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Untied Kingdom

by James Lovegrove

(Gollancz, 404 pages, advance reading proof. Published in hardback priced £17.99 and trade paperback priced £10.99, 17 April 2003.)

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This is a subtle and deft tale of collapse, a carefully crafted story of descent into a barbaric future. Lovegrove is very good at approaching things tangentially, easing his readers into a growing understanding of a very English apocalypse. Indeed, parts of Untied Kingdom could almost be read as sub-utopian, pastoral wish-fulfilment: a less-populated future where the survivors grow their own vegetables, have time to indulge in fishing and gentle strolls, and never forgetting the importance of a good communal shin-dig.

At the outset, this is a future of derelict warehouses occupied by "spiders and the scavenging scurry of mice", not cockroaches and rats; one where the local teacher can take a scenic walk back home along the river, where an old widower is to be found every day with his fishing rod. The reality of collapse only intrude in the observation that the river is rich in heavy metals, and no fish have been found in it for years. The daily detail of the almost idyllic setting for the leisurely opening sequence does a splendid job of building up the suspense: something must go wrong soon. The seeds for the ensuing violent upheaval are there from the start: the distant sound of an engine, a noise seldom heard in this fallen future where computers are just meaningless junked boxes and mousemats are used to wedge open the classroom door. Gradually, relentlessly, the descriptions of daily minutiae acquire darker resonances as the dark core of this world is exposed: the psychological trauma, the decay, the fear underlying the apparent peace. The gentle rural town of Downbourne is raided by a be-logoed, skinhead gang: White Van Man out on a "bitch hunt" from his stronghold in inner London. They beat the men of Downbourne and steal the women, in a sudden intrusion of human nature at its most barbaric.

Just how does a mild-mannered Englishman cope with such an outrage?

Fen Morris, schoolteacher and lifelong seeker of the path of least resistance, is stuck in a marriage left numb by loss. When his wife is kidnapped in the raid, picked out because the gang's leader has a thing for redheads, Fen is left with the choice of either accepting his loss and with it his newfound freedom, or somehow becoming active and trying to do something about it. But what can he possibly do? At one point, England is described as "a place where, when the proper equipment was not available, you improvised". This is the tale of one Englishman's improvisation in the face of adversity and, to a lesser extent, the improvisation of his kidnapped wife.

Untied Kingdom is a novel in the grand tradition of usually-British post-collapse fiction -- importantly, it is post-collapse, post-change, rather than post-disaster: no meteor strike, earthquake or alien invasion here, but rather a never-explicated Unlucky Gamble, which has led to isolation for England and sporadic bombing by the International Community. The nature of the Unlucky Gamble matters nothing to the stories of Fen and his wife Moira, although the way it's referred to by characters without ever giving the reader any information other than that it was a gamble, and not a lucky one, is a minor distraction. Telling just a little more might have made it less intrusive.

England hasn't merely collapsed, it's gone rather loopy in the process: an eccentric hodge-podge of communities led by people pretending to be traditional archetypes -- the Green Man, King Arthur, assorted Robin Hoods, a Lady Godiva... Fen's quest into a gang-ruled London to find Moira is a picaresque through a landscape peopled by: a very Peter's Friends community living in a manor house; a creative-writing cult where the pecking order is decided through extended story workshopping; a mad railwayman...

It's easy for the reader to feel toyed with, the hand of the author heavy at times as Lovegrove delays Fen on his journey and lingers in the countryside where the rule seems to be not so much survival of the fittest as survivor of the middle classes, but there are some delightful -- and chilling -- moments along the way. Despite the peaceful surface of much of Untied Kingdom, there's brutality aplenty, although understated: you have to pause to realise just how grim this future is, as the protagonists live out an homage to the gentler post-collapse fantasies of Lovegrove's notable predecessors, John Wyndham in particular. This is a very well thought-out novel, with some elegant and pin-point writing. Above all, it is a brilliant portrayal of the adjustments needed to live with upheaval and its often harsh realities, as illustrated by the intimate, the personal.

Review by Keith Brooke.

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