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Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat

In many ways, Aurorarama is a rather extraordinary book. As the name of the author, Jean-Christophe Valtat, might suggest, this is a novel by a native French-speaker writing in English. The result is slightly surreal both in the actual language and in the content, for French authors are often wont to be surreal. I have to confess this is not the kind of book I usually try to read but, having seen it praised so lavishly by Adam Roberts in Locus, I decided to risk it.

Having read it, I find myself in a Limbo of indecision. In one sense, it was fascinating. But it did tend to be faintly Hellish. So that you can understand my problem, let’s start with a definition of fascinating. This is one of these double-edged words. In the better sense, your attention is held by amazement or you are entranced. But there’s no reason for the source of the fascination to be benign. You can equally be struck motionless by awe or terror. Now back to the language.

Writing in a “foreign” language is always a challenge because, unless you have vast experience, it’s easy to miss the subtlety of meanings that can surround individual words depending on their context. For example, “Madam” can be a term of respect or it can describe a woman who runs a brothel. Not, you will understand, that there are any blunders of such magnitude in this book. The English editors will have used their knowledge gently to persuade the author to avoid such obviously embarrassing lapses. But there are some really strange vocabulary choices. The effect of their inclusion is to induce a slightly whimsical feel to some of the prose, as if the words themselves have a serendipitous quality. So when, instead of walking around, a character pussyfoots, you know someone has been delving into the thesaurus. Being old and from a family in love with words, this is a word we used regularly but, today, the majority of people would reach for a dictionary to find out exactly what it means. This is not to say that all these vocabulary choices are historical oddities. Far from it. But it indicates a rather playful, if not capricious, approach to creating the text. There’s a kind of extravagance lurking at the corner of each page waiting to step out into the light of day as your eye approaches.

Jean-Christophe Valtat shown thinking in French

Under normal circumstances, I would find this rather tiresome. A book that teeters on the knife edge of malapropisms is not the most restful of pastimes. Yet this pulls itself back from the brink through its content. It’s not a book full of exciting daring-do although there are encounters with zombies on the polar ice cap and strange hauntings to divert us from the main story of a city toying with the notion of revolution. The whole is a kind of metaphor for the fate of civilisations. Imagine a single city able to sustain itself in a polar landscape, surrounded only by the Inuit and the usual animal ecosystem. It has risen on the backs of the indigenes, exploiting its own people and keeping them docile by encouraging the liberal use of drugs. Now the mass culture grows tired of excess. There’s the possibility of instability. So, naturally, the corrupt government turns to repression. To justify the internal application of force by the police, there must be an external threat so, rather visibly, a great airship appears above the city. The people are encouraged to fear the worst is about to happen. There are terrorists in their midst, planning to bring down the government with the help of air power.

As is always the case when civilisations are at stake, the police try blackmail and threats to induce “loyal” citizens to co-operate and spy on their neighbours and friends. Desperate times call for desperate means. Caught between government and revolutionaries are those who might be able to infiltrate the latter’s ranks. So Gabriel d’Allier finds himself thrown into the company of Sealtiel Wynne, the leader of the “secret” police. Perhaps he can confirm that his friend, Brentford Orsini, is the author of a seditious pamphlet. This is the trigger for a surprisingly diverse set of events, some conventional, others varying between stage magic and supernatural happenings, as Gabriel and Brentford alternate their points of view until all is revealed and resolved at the end. It’s an unpredictable ride as logic and absurdity collide. I can’t say this proves to be magic realism. Since we’re in a city that has never existed in our world, this book does not blend the real with the magical. Rather it’s a use of metaphor to explore real issues such as the nature of government, in this case an oligopoly and, given the lack of a democratic process, the desirability of revolution as a means of forcing change.

The core of the book may be baldly stated as follows:

Freedom of thought is dangerous to power, it demands sacrifice and blood, so activism must be replaced by apathy;
revolutions are complicated and frail because most people are afraid of change;
even if they succeed, any loss of order is only short-term and inevitably followed by a reintroduction of order;
so our only hope is that the new group using the power of government will be better than the last.

I’m not going to say this is a book that will appeal to everyone. Indeed, I can well see those who dislike a “literary” approach to fiction hating this. I remain ambivalent. Aurorarama has its moments of wit, toying with a subversive, if not an anarchic, view of the world. But I find it too diffuse. I did not feel drawn to finish. It felt more a duty to see how it was resolved. A shame really. There are some good ideas in all this and the language is interesting, but. . .

Aurorarama was one of the finalists for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, 2011.

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