A little over a year ago I read The Race by Nina Allan, science fiction writer and critic. I found the book interesting, reviewed it on Goodreads, and wrote a little about it in my notebook. Then, apparently, I forgot about it so much that I was looking at it in the shelf trying to remember when, exactly, I’d read it. Looking back at my notes, this is a real shame – the novel (story suite?) is thoroughly interesting.
Now that Pod Bay One is defunct (RIP) I’m looking at my notebooks and thinking that I really should get back into writing this blog again. So I’m going to write up my notes on The Race for you, whomever is reading this, with some additional notes that I discovered about the paperback version of the book after I wrote my review/these notes.
I was not expecting The Race to be anything other than a normal, ‘mundane’ science fiction novel. I use ‘mundane’ in the sense of the literary movement – Earth-bound, ‘hard’ science fiction, no extraterrestrials or interstellar flight. Throughout the whole of Jenna’s story I was expecting this narrative thread to continue, with Marce’s part, number 4, being about the missing Lumey. Well, I was half right. It took a bit of Christy’s narrative for me to realise that this was not the same world, not the past, but another reality in which Jenna and Lumey’s stories were written by Christy Peller. It took even longer for me to realise that ‘Brock Island; by Christy Peller was not an unannounced novella by another author, but part of this novel. But really, it’s that inclusion that really complicates what’s going on in The Race.
The Race is not exactly a story-suite. While the stories are thematically linked, they also tell a consistent, on-going narrative that means they don’t fully work disconnected. While it might be possible to say that Jenna and Marce are fictional characters created by Christy, a little more reflection reminds us that Christy, too, is fictional – the creation of Nina Allan. Well, we might think, so what? The conceit is still that Christy created Sapphire, Jenna, and Lumey/Marce. But the inclusion of “Brock Island” complicates that. In the story attributed to Christy, we read a thrid-person narrative of Marce’s middle age. The chapters/sections “Jenna” and “Marce” are both first person. Christy writes them, we might suppose, but they ‘exist’, really, as much as she does. It complicates the readers relationship to their fictional narratives, realistic and science fictional. What is real? we might ask. What is realism and why/how is it different to the unreal narratives of science fiction?
An additional question follows: Why is Alex’s narrative told in the third person? Because he’s male? Or, like “Brock Island”, because this story is an invention of Christy’s, a kind of consoling narrative she tells herself because she cannot face investigating Linda’s disappearance herself?
Beyond this statement about the significance of science fiction as a literary genre, there’s also a narrative function behind these shifting narratives. Christy, like the character Laura Christy in her “Brock Island”, has an experience where she ‘sees’ another world, through a mirror, which is like-but-unlike her own. Another life, somewhere different. We are given the impression that Jenna and Marce’s lives, presented to us both as Christy’s fictional narratives and through their own thoughts (also fictional narratives of Nina Allan), are not so much Christy’s creations as her hearing messages from this other world.
After I’d written the version of this blog that I wrote last Decemeber in my notebook, I started looking into other people’s readings of this novel. In doing so, I discovered that Allan had written “Brock Island” separately to be added to the Titan edition of The Race and that it was not supposed to be understood as a ‘new ending’ to the novel. Well, oops.
I don’t really think that this undermines my reading of the novel – I didn’t have the information at the time, and who are authors to control how I, the reader, understand a text just because they wrote it?! In all seriousness, in the event that I re-read this novel (which I’m keen to do, but I’m more inclined to get my hands on Allan’s other novels first) this information probably will affect my understanding of the novel and how these worlds interact. But maybe it won’t. After all, for a year this reading was just for me, and even on this blog it’s unlikely to be read by more than 2-3 people.
I am glad to have had this reading, though, because in investigating Emily St John Mandel’s follow-up to Station Eleven (Knopf: 2014), The Glass Hotel (Picador: 2020) I discovered that advanced readers were confused about the novel’s relationship to Station Eleven. One reader speculated that the plague of Station Eleven was in the imagination of one of the characters who appears in both novels. But The Race, and the conversation in Station Eleven about parallel universes, suggest otherwise: these are different, parallel, fictional narratives that invite us to question how we receive fictional stories.