Super-State: A Novel of a Future Europe
by Brian Aldiss
Reviewed by L. J. Hurst
Brian W Aldiss was 77 on August 18th 2002. Having published his first book when he was thirty, he seems likely to publish at least two novels this year. SUPER-STATE is both a satire on Europe in forty years time, and a coda to other parts of his oeuvre. Here we read of the death of Tom Squire, thus concluding the Squire Quartet that began with LIFE IN THE WEST.
What could bring many characters together? A wedding. What could bring together many of the leading figures of Europe and the world? The wedding of the son of the President of the European Union. President Victor de Bourcey has the power to erect a temporary palace on a mountainous lakeside to hold the ceremony, but he cannot stop the electrical storms that drive a herd of wild mustangs down the hillsides and into the grounds. Symbolic as that may be to an author, more sf-specifically when storms have delayed the bride-to-be in the Himalayas it is much easier to have an android walk up the aisle, go through the ceremony and be declared "husband and substitute". In Aldiss's future Europe that is not thought odd.
Characters soon return to their homes - those concerned with pulp literature return to their writing, those concerned with war return to the army, those concerned with religion return to their farm. In the first half of SUPER-STATE one could be reading a novel of manners, leavened by philosophic conversation. In BILLION YEAR SPREE Aldiss saw the roots of sf in Mary Shelley, now he seems to have been influenced by the novels of the Shelleys' friend, Thomas Love Peacock, as tart conversation follows tart conversation. The future rulers of a united Europe we discover are the descendants of the past rulers of the various parts of a fragmented Europe - and still using the old methods of inter-family marriage as a cross-brace strengthening their familiar structures. Power has not corrupted them more than anything in the past, but nor has it improved them. Aldiss sees that civilisation does not change in a cladistic fashion - in eastern Europe (the EU now extends beyond Romania) there will a universal "ambient" (the TV replacement), and androids, but bullock carts will still be needed as well. The attempts to change the peasantry instigated by their leaders will consist of the usual incompetent combination of bread and circuses.
Religious differences and manias will continue to cause misery - in the most extreme cases Muslim friend is turned against Muslim, Christian is prepared to kill Christian. Despite its backward areas, Europe continues to be the destination of choice for refugees and economic migrants, and the struggle against their arrival threatens war with distant countries. On the other hand and further away, the spacecraft "Roddenberry" is approaching the moons of Jupiter, hoping to discover life.
Anyone concerned with evolution has also to be concerned with extinction. As a character points out, life on Earth has passed successfully passed five extinction points when its rivals were exterminated. One could make several deductions from this - that some greater force intended it; that we have "won first prize" (as Cecil Rhodes claimed for an English birth); that we have come through and can relax. Or as Aldiss's character would have it, that we are due to be troubled again any day now. Aldiss goes for the worst choice - the latter half of SUPER-STATE follows a meteorite strike in Greenland and the consequent, devastating Atlantic tsunami.
Just as bullock carts are used alongside androids, there are co-existences just as strange, if not worse, in the wider world. Among these is the continuing terrorist struggle of outcast states, which ends in war and the invasion of Tebarou, a Muslim state become independent of China.
There is not much point in attempting further summary. For a novel I guess is only 70,000 words, SUPER-STATE is remarkably condensed. Better to look at some of Aldiss's working styles. One is to insert bursts of rebel broadcasts from the "Insanatics", who supposedly reject the government (John Brunner and Robert Anton Wilson did something similar). Unfortunately, these arguments are not well put and are not entertaining (though that may be the intention).
On the other hand there are info-dumps in the conversations of characters which raise original ideas and then, infuriatingly, are not followed through. Did you realise that shepherd societies can grow into civilisations only because grass grows from the root not the tip, otherwise grazing animals would destroy their pasture and so themselves? Or have you ever wondered why woman go through agonizing childbirth - because of the size of a baby's head - to produce a bony skeletal structure that supports life for a prospective seventy years, but then lasts for millennia after life has departed? As fascinating as facts and questions like these can be, they provoke another question - are these items significant to the novel? The earlier discussion of extinction points is significant because it foreshadows the later tsunami, but even when life is discovered on Jupiter these extraneous facts about life and growth continue to be extraneous; they fail to foreshadow anything. They lie in the novel like fossils in the Burgess Shales as evidence of dead ends.
Condensation has its advantages - in years past the digest and the compacted soup have been social benefits. Now there is less demand and place for them, and a novelistic work which uses the method threatens to be as isolated and peculiar as any other condensing engine. What might be worse is that sometimes Aldiss seems to throw in extraneous detail regardless of its relevance. There are a couple of sex scenes, for instance, in which suddenly the detail of digital manipulation is described - almost certainly irrelevantly to the forward flow of this satirical work - threatening to contaminate by similarity any other use of additional detail.
On the harder sciences, conversations about androids, or between them, is always treated humourously, but the occasional references to the space voyage are distinctly flat, factual, and at variance with the tone of the other writing. This does not stop them being interesting - the crew are running low on food due to damage to the holds and worry about their position. They achieve their goal and find their robotic return vessel is in place so that they can continue. Nevertheless, close to starving they have eaten their first catch.
As the novel ends, Christmas is being celebrated globally - but the exigencies or commercial necessities of the coming times mean that Christmas has become a synoptic festival incorporating Hallowe'en and Thanksgiving. There will be turkey eaten on Earth, on the "Roddenberry" they will eat fresh Jovian.
I could imagine Aldiss writing SUPER-STATE, stopping and chuckling at times. The reader could chuckle with him. At his conclusion, though, he and we can only smile grimly. Our reasons might be different.
Return to Home Page
© L J Hurst 2007