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3 Books that Undermine Reality

By / July 26, 2017 / no comments

There is a point in Nina Allan’s The Rift, which I reviewed here recently, when we know that the same character is both alive and dead. It’s a chilling moment that is never resolved, so we close the book not quite sure what is real and what isn’t.

Science fiction writers have always played around with the notion of reality, though by the end of the book we usually know where we stand. The strange little village turns out to be inside a pocket universe, the characters who seem to be acting out the Greek myths are really aliens finding out about a long-dead humanity, and so on. But occasionally a book comes along that rips the rug out from under you at a key moment, and then doesn’t resolve the issue. These are three stunning books that, at the end, leave you unsure how much of what you’ve read was real … if anything.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

The Fifth Head of Cerberus: Three NovellasThe title story in this collection of three linked novellas is one of the best and most famous things that Gene Wolfe has written. It is a story of cloning and murder centred around a wealthy family (their money comes from a brothel they operate) on a planet once settled by French-speaking colonists, or perhaps Creole would be more accurate, the atmosphere of Sainte Croix is closer to New Orleans than to Paris. The colony is clearly in a decadent stage, but underlining this is a theory (proposed by the narrator’s aunt) that the original natives on the companion planet, Sainte Anne, were shapeshifters who killed the original human colonists and took their place. The two subsequent stories, “‘A Story’ by John V. Marsch” and “VRT”, both play with this theory without actually confirming it one way or the other. By the end of the book we don’t know whether Marsch, the anthropologist who is the only character connected to all three novellas, has been taken over by the aboriginals, whether all of the humans we have seen are really shapeshifters, or whether the shapeshifters ever existed at all.

Buy this book on Amazon.

The Affirmation by Christopher Priest

The Affirmation (Valancourt 20th Century Classics)There is a point, part way through the novel, when the manuscript that the book’s central character has been writing all along, and which we assume is the other half of what we’ve been reading, is revealed to consist of nothing but blank pages. But if that is the case, what have we actually been reading? The Affirmation tells the story of Peter Sinclair who has been having a breakdown; to help him recover he accepts a commission to renovate a cottage in the country outside London, and whilst there also writes the story of his life. What he writes, however, or at least what we assumed he was writing, is the story of Peter Sinclair who lives in the world of the Dream Archipelago. This Peter Sinclair wins the lottery for immortality treatment; but once he arrives at the clinic he learns that the treatment will wipe out his memory, so the first thing he must do is write out his life story. What he writes, however, or what we assume he writes, is the story of Peter Sinclair who has a breakdown and accepts a commission to renovate a cottage outside London. As the novel twists, we realise that neither of these two scenarios can be real, but both must be. Priest, of course, is someone who persistently undermines our sense of reality. In The Islanders, for instance, an author writes an introduction for a book in which his own death is described. You never know what you can believe in Priest’s work.

Buy this book on Amazon.

Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes

Infinite GroundA police inspector is called out of retirement to investigate the disappearance of a young office worker. The man was in the middle of a family reunion at a restaurant when he got up from the table and never returned. It seems like a fairly routine case, until the inspector discovers that the family members he talks to are actually actors filling in for the family. Then, at the nameless corporation where the young man worked, he learns that most of the office workers he sees there are actors just looking busy. Next, when he examines the man’s office, he comes across forensic clues that the man was physically, biologically coming apart. When he tries to replicate the man’s office life, he finds himself becoming ever more dissociated from the world. And so it goes on: each new stage of the investigation only tends to suggest that the man’s circumstances, then the man himself, and finally the whole of reality are, in fact, unreal.

Buy this book on Amazon.

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