01/02/2011. Contributed by Patrick Mahon
pub: MIT Press/Semiotext(e). 287 page enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 11.95 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-58435-071-2).
check out website: www.semiotexte.com
‘Mercury Station’ is Mark von Schlegell’s second novel, following on from ‘Venusia’ in 2005. Like its predecessor, it is literary Science Fiction in a dystopian mould.
The book starts with the story of thirty-seven year-old Eddard J. Ryan, a prisoner in a borstal on Mercury in the year 2150. He has been there for fifteen years, ever since he bungled his first terrorist attack after joining an Irish nationalist paramilitary group. Ryan wakes up alone on Mercury Station and is told by the Artificial Intelligence, which has various names, which runs the station that everyone else abandoned ship a week earlier after it was hit by a burst of high-energy radiation. Ryan is in the sickbay, having somehow lost his left arm during the radiation attack.
Under his sickbed pillow, Ryan finds an ancient manuscript dating from the Middle Ages. The station AI asks him to read it as it thinks the text may help to explain the strange events of a week before. As we read along with Ryan we hear the story of a medieval witch who was burned at the stake and the unnamed creature that took over the witch’s re-animated corpse. There appear to be a number of parallels and contrasts between Ryan’s situation and that of the creature. For example, it appears to have a magic left arm, in contrast to Ryan’s missing one. As he reads more of the story, both Ryan and the station AI start to believe that it may prove the truth of the theories of one of Ryan’s former employers, Count Reginald Skaw, who believed that time travel was possible. If that is true, however, what does it mean for Ryan’s continued existence on the abandoned Mercury Station?
This is a fundamentally strange novel to read. It starts out as very recognisable Science Fiction with the protagonist set on another planet in the middle of the twenty-second century. However, much of the story takes place in a semi-mythical past so strange as to qualify as fantasy rather than reality. Also, although there are narrative links between the SF plot and the fantasy sub-plot, these are complex and difficult to untangle. In addition, the original protagonist, Ryan, is one of the few characters who is outlined in any detail. Even then he soon shows himself to be an unreliable narrator. Consequently there are few, if any, characters that the reader can clearly identify with and feel sympathy for, which makes it difficult at times to feel too concerned about any of their fates.
Nonetheless, the story itself is very readable, even when you’re not sure where it is going. It also covers a wide range of subjects including string theory, time travel, war-gaming, history and politics, which makes it interesting to read.
However, the complexities of the plot do have their downsides. Not to put too fine a point on it, for much of the time I had no idea what was going on. This would probably become less of a problem on a second or third reading of the novel. Given that it is less than three hundred pages long, that is perhaps not an unrealistic thing to ask of a reader who really wants to get to grips with this book. On your first time through, though, you’ll need to keep your wits about you. On the final page of the novel, one of the characters notes that ‘as a whole the story of this Ryan is close to meaningless’. When I read this, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
If you are looking for a traditional SF novel with a clear plot, you probably won’t be interested in ‘Mercury Station’. However, if you are interested in experimental literary SF and don’t mind working hard for your entertainment, then you may want to give this novel a go.
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