Sunday, May 1, 2016

Review of Super-State by Brian Aldiss

The European Union is perhaps the grandest political experiment ever attempted in the history of mankind.  Attempting to unite a continent of people with millennia of wars, languages, and cultures under them, the EU has remained intact for two decades but recently shown signs of falling apart as economic issues and international strife apply pressure.  Sitting in his modernist gallery and slinging peanuts at the proceedings, science fiction great Brian Aldiss penned his response to the EU in 2002 with Super-State.

Super-State opens on a grand wedding.  Like passengers of the Titanic having their ball unbeknownst to the lurking iceberg, a stampede of horses eventually disrupts proceedings.  The narrative fanning out from there, a variety of characters and interests are introduced.  From a simple-minded writer of British romance to a German professor, a highly ideological artist to a struggling middle eastern immigrant, a warmongering general to astronauts on a mission to Europa, the list goes on, global warming and Islamic aggression taking their own toll on the continent.  Not intended as a representative spectrum of European society, Aldiss picks his battles as they accord with the cutting point/counter point of his commentary.

A sweeping novel in the sense that its brush strokes are broad and not all-encompassing, Super-State presents a variety of evolving vignettes toward commenting on the state of the European Union, and beyond.  The title an intentional double-entendre, the main mode is satire, one so fine as to make zone-sf reviewer Christopher Geary say Aldiss “skewers all and sundry with extraordinary precision and a dry wit.” Containing laugh out loud moments (the androids locked in the cupboard are particularly amusing), there is nevertheless a sobering reality regarding human inclination underpinning the flow of scenes.

Things not panning out as best intentions would have them a common theme, from the opening wedding scene to the surprise result of humanity’s first alien encounter near the conclusion, Aldiss pokes and prods humanity’s foibles in pitch perfect tone.  Immenently quotable, the decadence of European life is contrasted by a radical political voice calling itself Insanatics that is injected into scenes with cutting commentary on the reality of the human condition (not unlike the voice of Chad C. Mulligan from John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar).  Another way of putting this is from Richard Hammersley in his Infinityplus review: “…the novel's main concern is human nature, which [Aldiss] believes is enduring, particularly in its worst and weakest characteristics.”

In the end, Super-State is a curmudgeonly novel but no dentures: it’s teeth are delicately sharp.  Aldiss something of a cranky old man sitting back and sniping European foibles, there nevertheless is more than one bit of perennial wisdom underpinning his witty, and very often funny, story.  Subtle satire (interestingly not unlike Bruce Sterling’s brand, with a drop or two of Vonnegut), it’s literature for the intelligent side of sf with sustained, pitch perfect tone.  (Hence, the lack of award nominations.)

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