‘If Then’ is a deeply original, compelling and often disturbing piece of very English science fiction. The mysterious title suggests early code with the variables removed and the book’s structure hints at the binary; it’s divided in two with the first part titled ‘If’ (suggesting the future), the other titled ‘Then’, (suggesting the past). The title also seems to be an incomplete sentence eg ‘IF this happens THEN we can expect that’. In both possibilities, there is an absence; whether of logic, perspective or humanity.
However, anyone expecting a standard dystopia will be confounded, as the book explores the many levels of fear experienced by the inhabitants of Lewes once the requirement for human involvement in work passes and society has fallen apart. The townspeople have ceded all authority to the Process, which far from being the ‘Frankenstein algorithm’ of stories like Robert Harris’s ‘The Fear Index’ instead channels human needs and desires.
Of course, many of these impulses are subconscious and do not register sufficiently to be understood, so there is a constant feeling of unease no less troubling for being eerily familiar. Rather than the dreaded artificial intelligence bringing about an apocalyptic singularity, the power behind the Process appears to be all-too-human Jungian collectivism. In return, the Process creates, allocates and polices the scarce resources available to this island of alternative civilisation, seemingly lost on the South Downs as the rest of the county quietly implodes.
The world of the novel has a low-tech feel; the Process interface is not some cyberpunk plug-in but a scar-like ridge down the back of the head that smells yeasty. Order is kept by the Armour, a Wellesian piece of steampunk that blends with its operator in a symbiotic sub-system of the Process.
The novel examines the question of what it is people actually want, especially when the usual baubles have all been used up. The answer seems to be renewal, but how can rejuvenation be achieved in a society this exhausted?
Both the novel and the Process it describes take inspiration from trench mysticism, particularly the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift movement, formed by pacifists who worked as stretcher bearers in the Great War. If that conflict can be replicated, the theory goes, so too can the inspiration it engendered. Accordingly, automatons formed like Tommies begin to appear around the town.
The imagery is stark and disturbing: the protagonist cuts the arm of one of these motionless, doll-like men and his blood is found to be a set of red beads, not yet flowing. Gradually, though, they come to life and with them the wholesale re-enactment of the Dardanelles Campaign. Here, the novel splits into those experiencing the war and those left outside.
The tragic power of history means It’s always a risk using the Great War in fiction for anything other than describing the Great War. However, if you’re going to do include the conflict it pays to really go for it, which Matthew De Abaitua does with pummelling ferocity here. These sequences don’t so much derail the narrative as create a sense of dislocation that is pure science fiction.
Those left outside the mocked up Suvla Bay landing experience the fighting as if it’s taking place on a distant movie set. Every now and then, someone will come across the badly-made white plastic dummy of a horse, which will be moving spasmodically as if injured. Later, the ‘soldiers’ will discover the same animal and to them it will be completely real. This is brilliant stuff; the Process is using basic props because one of its drivers is to preserve scarce resources as it undertakes its mysterious grand plan. Instead of fabricating a real horse, it manipulates the minds of the participants to create a multiplying reality worthy of Philip K Dick.
All the characters are desperate whether they are immersed in the Great War or not, so there is corresponding sense of desperation in the Process and its creations. It’s a condition that has chilling contemporary political parallels, as the World Wars are endlessly invoked by our extremist press to distort reality for their own dismal ends. That James, the bailiff who has been augmented to operate the Armour, uses it for seemingly arbitrary evictions from Lewes is a further twist that has become even less comfortable since the novel was published in 2015.
Fortunately, the book is also a series of insightful character studies that engage humanity and identity to offset the strangeness. The novel ingeniously posits natural algorithms as a more efficient means of information management than the now redundant digital technology; a pattern that underlies the confusion felt by the stoical James and the frustration experienced by his compassionate, angry wife Ruth. On the science front there is the lovely Alex Drown, who still wears a business suit even though she cuts her own hair ‘in a grimy mirror’ and the giant, gaunt figure of enigmatic genius Omega John, who has a unique talent he intends to use in order to end war once and for all.
The prose has a wonderful lightness and simplicity at odds with its complex subject; at no point is the dense narrative difficult or obtuse. Visceral yet bracingly clever; haunting but more timely by the day, ‘If Then’ is one of the most insightful and relevant English science fiction novels of recent years.