You may have gathered that this isn’t a book for those who like their fiction to be realistic and sensible. Fowler is carrying on a grand tradition of absurdist humour that stretches through Douglas Adams and Monty Python all the way back to Tristram Shandy and the works of Jonathan Swift. Kurt Vonnegut is another key influence, especially stylistically. What’s unique about Fowler, though, is twofold: the way he blends satire and sci-fi, and his ability to be all-encompassing in his targets.
The difficulty with writing satire is you’ve got to have a strong enough emotional hook to carry the reader through, even as you’re mocking your chosen topic. Fowler achieves this by making Edgar Malroy an unexpectedly tragic figure. At the start of the book, we find out that he’s already passed away, and as we get to know the character, the quiet sadness at his heart becomes apparent. His relationship with Sophie Alderson, who is herself somewhat tragic too, is a classic doomed romance. Their downfall is their inability to acknowledge their feelings for each other, instead each swearing to destroy the other’s enterprise. Taking this aspect of the story seriously is what makes all the silliness and absurdity work.
It’s not a perfect book. The joke wears a little thin as it goes on, and the action becomes somewhat repetitive. Still, it’s effective enough to get its point across, and for the most part is very enjoyable.
Fowler makes the moral of the story explicit in the afterword, in case the reader missed it buried among the jokes and philosophising: ‘People are more important than the Truth’. It’s a statement that’s hard to argue with, no matter your faith position. We would all like to know the Truth, whatever it is, and we’d also like very much to be right, but that shouldn’t get in the way of caring for each other. If we were to remember that more often, Fowler is saying, the world would be a better place.
Review by Charlie Alcock