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Our Tragic Universe May 24, 2011

Posted by futurewired in Reviews, Scarlett Thomas.
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As promised yesterday I’m going to continue on with a look at one of Scarlett Thomas’ other novels, Our Tragic Universe.

Our Tragic Universe is in some ways a very different book from The End of Mr Y. It has fewer fantastic elements, those that do appear are more ambiguous and can be equally ascribed to chance or illusion, but perhaps more importantly while the former was structured like a thriller, with a clear and comparatively linear plot, the latter is much more open in terms of narrative. The author once contributed to an anthology for a literary movement called the New Puritans – a sort of literary dogme 95, among other things eschewing flashbacks in favour of  a linear temporality. Our Tragic Universe in contrast drifts back and forward in time, flashbacks being used to explore character and theme rather than to advance the plot.

The book’s main character, Meg, is an author, living more or less in poverty in Dartmouth. She made her name writing a series of sci-fi novels called Newtopia, now getting by writing life affirming genre fiction under a collective pseudonym, but always lurking in the background is her ‘real’ novel, the great literary work for which she was offered a contract years before but remains ultimately unfinished and perhaps unfinishable. She lives with her boyfriend Christopher, who is unstable and alarmingly passive aggressive, and has a crush on an older man, Rowan, a married maritime museum curator. These relationships, along with those with friends Libby and Vi form the ‘meat’ of the novel, and provide the basis for long complicated conversations on literary theory, the end of the universe, the placebo effect and cultural premonitions. Later on, and in flashbacks, other things crop up, like a possible wizard and the Beast of Dartmoor, but basically you could say this is one of these books where people sit around and talk about things.

There’s a lot of stuff about narrative theory in the book which I’m not going to say much about; other people have done it better than I ever could! I did find it fascinating though, the suggestion that the conventions of narrative are restrictive – Scarlett Thomas repeatedly refers to Aeschylus assertion that Euripides clever but formulaic stories could be talked of in terms of losing a bottle of oil, and its this temptation to reduce stories down that some of the characters find troubling. This is contrasted with the ‘storyless story’, stepping outwith the confines of traditional narrative, giving examples of Zen Koans. One character asserts that a key feature of the storyless story is an element that negates or contradicts itself, that raises the possibility of its own non-existence, or goes against the apparent reason for its existence. This is echoed in the book, in the number of times ‘fantastic’ events are explained away by ‘normal’ ones and vice versa. Other elements of traditional narrative are played with, including Chekhov’s famous dictum that a gun shown in the first act of a play must be fired by the last; there are a bunch of instances of foreshadowing taht sometimes don’t necessarily come off how you might expect.

One key idea that appears in the book is a version of Frank Tipler’s Omega point, espoused here by a fictional psychologist called Kelsey Newman. At the end of time the universe will contract, in the ‘big crunch’, compressing all matter and energy into one point of infinite density. In this final cosmological singularity the computing power of the universe will be infinite. This singularity can then be programmed to emulate the entire multiverse from the begining of time, effectively resurrecting everything and everyone that ever existed and allowing them to live for ever in an infinite set of simulations. Kelsey Newman adds two things, the observation statistically it is far more likely this has already happened and that you are living in a simulation, and that the purpose of this simulation is to learn to cope with the afterlife, through overcoming obstacles, playing the hero in your own life, as in conventional narratives.

Meg finds both the idea and Newman’s conclusions unsettling, even repellent. In a way it does however provide a basis for re-evaluating her life; a series of changes follow, from taking up cosmic ordering, to knitting. You could see it as a version of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return – the idea that you will live exactly the same life, over and over again, doing the same things and that this should act as a motivation to live life fully without regrets. The idea hangs over the book, and different responses to it are indicated at different times – how to be a writer when in an infinite simulation all books have already been written. The contrast appears again between Newman’s self help books encouraging people to treat life like a video game, defeat the monsters and progress to the next level, and the structure of the book itself, an open ended koan that makes you think and feel but doesn’t dictate any conclusions. In an infinite universe where there is no end point the latter seems somehow more fitting.

The Omega Point itself has been called pseudoscience by a lot of people, there are a whole lot of issues with it, not least that it’s reliant on a disputed model of the end of the universe – the big crunch, rather than the heat death of the universe in which all particles are equidistant and immobile. As used in the context of the novel however, it is a brilliant way to apply science/science fiction themes to literary fiction, offering a different way to think about life, and about the characters and their experiences.

As this is a science fiction blog I feel I should address the way genre fiction is treated in Our Tragic Universe. Scarlett Thomas began her career writing crime novels, that she has since dismissed as inauthentic claptrap. Meg, in the book, has written sf books that she is now seemingly embarrassed by, and those, along with the dreadful sounding Zeb Ross books she produces, with their stringent rules, are the main targets for the criticisms about conventional narrative. Is this fair? You can’t deny the presence of conventions and tropes in genre fiction, it’s one of the things usually used to differentiate it from more ‘literary’ fiction, and there certainly are a gread deal of books that feel trapped or enslaved by formulaic narrative. This raises two questions for me, firstly whether narrative conventions, even inverted or subverted, really act to block authenticity, and whether there are works that would be considered genre fiction, sf in particular that escape these constraints?

In answer to the first question I feel that good genre fiction uses the neatness of narrative structures and conventions to demonstrate the messiness and excessive elements of ‘real life’. They can be used to tie down and contextualise expressions of authenticity. The End of Mr Y invokes multiple tropes that are subverted, diverted and used to open up new possibilities in a way that doesn’t feel constraining.  There’s also a sense in which the language of the authentic seems inappropriate sometimes, in which sf themes can be expressions of genuine human urges and drives that don’t really square with personal authenticity. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a good example of this I think.

The second question I’m not so sure of. In my non-sf reading life I’m a big fan of Roberto Bolano, and both The Savage Detectives and 2666 seem to fit the category of this kind of open, non traditionally structured book.  In terms of sf however I’m struggling a bit; I can think of lots of books that involve non-traditional narrative elements, but not quite in the same way.

Any ideas?

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