Every so often, you read a novel that knocks it out of the park. And I’m not talking about the obvious classics, or the much-hyped new releases that also deliver on what they promise. I’m talking about the ones that sneak up on you. Arcadia is one of the best time travel stories I’ve read in a long while—more than that, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a year already burgeoning with good reads. Iain Pears takes what could have been a good, converging story of multiple characters and times and turns it into a transcendent love letter to literature and storytelling itself.
It all starts … actually, that doesn’t really work for recapping the plot of a book about time travel. Arcadia’s universe is very much a block-time one, wherein, as Angela explains, all moments are happening simultaneously: time is simply a limiting illusion we humans have to put up with. Pears keeps most of the technical details around how Angela’s machinery works vague, but I think that’s for the best. But here are the settings: 1960s Oxford, the late 22nd century, and Anterwold (the temporal location of which I best not divulged for fear of spoilers). The inciting force, if you will, takes place in the second of these settings: Angela Meerson has invented a machine her boss believes will let them access (and exploit) parallel universes, but she believes it “merely” enables time travel within our universe. She proves this, at great personal cost, and turns herself into a fugitive in the process. Hiding out in the twentieth century, she continues tinkering with the machine, creating Anterwold in the process from the notes of her temporally native friend, Henry Lytten. There are, of course, complications.
Arcadia possesses a certain level of self-deprecation, or at least, of insouciance towards to the sacredness of a text. It is filled with allusion and intertextual shenanigans. Take Rosalind, for instance, the fifteen-year-old girl who feeds Henry’s cat and subsequently stumbles into Anterwold, setting into motion a series of events that have profound repercussions for the universe as a whole. Pears goes beyond merely lampshading the allusion to As You Like It in Rosalind’s name by making the parallels much more explicit. There are all the Shakespeare standbys of cross-dressing and mistaken identity, complete with Rosalind disguising herself as “Ganimed” and hanging out in a forest with Aliena until she falls in love with an exiled nobleman. Done so deliberately, this could still be seen as derivative—if it weren’t for the fact that Anterwold is itself a construct, a fake reality Angela’s machine has generated, in which these patterns of plot are destined to play out.
It’s this essential paradox, the idea that Anterwold is both an imagined and real place at the same time, that blows my mind. In some ways Pears draws on modern ideas of procedurally generated universes now becoming more popular in games: Anterwold comes from a set of rules Henry has dreamed up in his attempt to create a “better” fantasy society. It’s Tolkien without the dragons; Lewis without the talking animals. The inhabitants and the way they act are supposed to feel somewhat artificial, because aside from the “major” characters Henry sketched himself, they literally are stock characters. Yet at the same time, Rosalind’s interference means that Anterwold has also become “real” in the sense that it is connected to the 1960s timeline in some way. It is the 1960s’ past or future. So we have this literary creation now reified, with people who were once creations of another person’s mind. It is all very meta.
Meanwhile, in the future, there are those who would like to track down Angela and the data she took with her. Pears’ 22nd century is a terrifying place where “science” has been co-opted into state-sponsored scientism. The population is kept happy with mood-altering drugs and cognitvely-boosting implants; they live to work and produce and consume. Anyone who wants to think for themselves or question this status quo is a “renegade” and either arrested or, if they are lucky, barely tolerated in one of the several Retreats dotted throughout the world. Angela, born into this society and fortunately among the elite herself—albeit with a strong streak of individualism—admits she only began questioning it after experience the comparatively liberal, if technologically primitive, 1930s through 1960s.
My favourite part of Arcadia’s incredibly complex, interwoven strands of narratives have to be Rosalind’s interactions with Anterwold’s inhabitants. She is a fierce, intelligent, uncompromising young woman—in short, every bit the heroine of her namesake, transported into the 1960s and born to parents who just don’t have her breadth of vision for the potential that her life could have. Rosalind is so alive, and I love it. When she takes the Anterwold characters to task, she seems much older than her years—yet so often, her actions betray a kind of naive optimism fostered by her somewhat sheltered youth. Furthermore, I love the rapport she develops with Angela. The “us against the world” vibe is very satisfying, especially against the somewhat comical backdrop of communist intrigue (in England) and a murder-mystery-slash-uprising (in Anterwold). Most importantly, these protagonists when against bigger, badder, better-armed forces not through the use of force or even its threat, but through sheer, unadulterated brilliance. Those are my kinds of heroes.
There are so many other stories happening within this book, though, it is hard to play favourites. It took me longer than usual to read it, partly because I was dragging it out, not wanting it to end. I was savouring every plot line, because even the other plots were fascinating. I wanted to see Jack More continue to develop as an individual as he hunted down evidence of Angela in his present and further explored his nascent attraction to her estranged daughter. Alas, all that potential doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and I was a little disappointed that Jack never quite seems to come into his own. Emily, on the other hand, is delightful. While I suppose some might consider the last-minute reveal at the end something of a cheat, or at the very least, somewhat cheap, I adored it. The foreshadowing was there, and Pears just brings it all together so masterfully.
It’s this intricate evidence of a plan that makes Arcadia a masterpiece. Other reviews mention that this book initially came out as an app, and that one could explore it interactively or non-linearly or something. I don’t know about that—this hardcover does not mention any app whatsoever, and I experienced the narrative linearly insofar as I read it from first to last page as Pears has structured the pages. So I can’t speak to what others experienced when they dipped into this story, but I love the little glimpses at the seams that he gives us. Time travel stories are really tough to do. And there is so much seeming coincidence here in this novel—yet it all ties together. Even Lucien Grange’s disappearance isn’t left hanging but instead comes together, neatly providing a solution to the mystery of the Devil’s Handwriting and giving Angela further thought to chew on. And with each new development in this vein, my impression of Arcadia became more thoroughly positive: I was just having such a good time and getting so much stimulation, intellectually and emotionally, as a result.
I took a chance on Arcadia. I’d never heard of Iain Pears, hadn’t really any hype about this book online. It was just there, staring at me from the New Books shelves in the library, daring me to take it. I almost said no. The description on the jacket does little to beguile the reader; it reminded me of those books that overreach, and that made me wary. I’m so, so happy I overruled my inner cynic and took this chance. Arcadia is more than an entertaining read for me: it was a refreshing, reinvigorating look at science fiction and storytelling and all sorts of clever literary tricks and conceits. I had fun; I relished every page. I want to do it all again, and my only regret is that there can only be one first reading.