01/01/2011. Contributed by Neale Monks
pub: Picador/PanMacmillan. 553 page enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 7.99 (UK), $13.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-330-44702-7.
check out websites: www.toruk.com and www.panmacmillan.com
'Sputnik Caledonia' is really three books in one, the first and last being set in our world while the middle book is set in a world where Britain is a communist satellite of the Soviet Union. As such, it's both a tragicomic novel and a rather more serious piece of dystopian fiction.
The theme that connects the three books is the longing of a young Scottish boy to be an astronaut or, more specifically, a cosmonaut. Through the imagination of the boy, our world is changed into that other world and, presumably, back again. But there's also some nice exploration into how people in the free West viewed their peers in the communist East. The protagonist, Robbie, lives in a very left-wing family that sees the Soviet Union as a far more benevolent society than the United States, hence the boy's aspirations towards becoming a cosmonaut rather than an astronaut. From our perspective, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this is all rather amusing, even sad, but it's also seems so alien to us now that it's as much an alternative reality as anything else in the book.
By the time the novel switches into what the reader assumes is the alternate reality, the tone switches from vaguely comical into something much grimmer and darker. There are revelations made by both the protagonist and the reader, as the alternate, Soviet world the boy Robbie had dreamed is a quite different place for Robert the man to live and work in. Even though he's fulfilled his ambition after a fashion, he also loses his identity and freedom in the process.
To be honest, this middle section of the novel is pretty heavy going and things don't get any easier once the final part of the novel is reached. At first glance, it seems that everything has resolved itself, but there are hints that things aren't as simple as that. Inevitably, there's a non-scientific slant on the scientific ideas of uncertainty and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics that postulates the existence of multiple realities, in other words, just because Soviet Britain doesn't exist in our universe it doesn't mean it doesn't exist in another universe. Still, the ending is tragic in ways and definitely unsettling and, as such, the novel works quite well. Not an easy read by any means, but with depth and considerable pathos.
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Stephen Hunt's novels - USA