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Russell Hoban


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
This novel, written towards the end of Hoban's life, is unusual in being pure science fiction. It is set in the not very far distant future (the twenty-first century, in fact), by which time unlimited space travel has become a reality. Its central character and narrator, Fremder (the word means 'stranger' in German), is one of a special group of people who have been fitted with brain implants that enable the spaceships in which they operate to travel almost instantly to distant galaxies. This is still a somewhat perilous process, involving the disappearance and reappearance elsewhere of the ships and their crews. The technique was invented by Fremder's mother, Helen, who committed suicide while he was still in the womb; he was saved by being placed in an artificial womb.

Fremder is, not surprisingly, a man who has never fully come to terms with who he is, and the book tells the story of his self-discovery. The early chapters contain a good deal of flashback reminiscence, which slows things down somewhat. But gradually we find that Fremder is being investigated because of a strange incident that occurred when the spaceship he was travelling in, the Clever Daughter, vanished. All its crew disappeared as well, apart from Fremder himself, who was found in drifting in space, without a spacesuit or oxygen, but still alive. He has no conscious recollection of what happened, so the authorities invoke the help of a supercomputer called Pythia to try to find out. This being a Hoban novel, however, nothing is quite as it seems in the beginning, and Pythia herself (or itself) turns out to be different from what we and Fremder initially supposed.

This is a bare summary of a complex book—too complex perhaps; I found it harder to read than most of Hoban's other novels. It is also darker in tone than most, with fewer flashes of humour. And there is a good deal of violence; the streets are populated by gangs of renegades called Shorties and Clowns, bands of whom jointly gang-raped Fremder's mother. The Earth has been mostly destroyed by pollution and people have to wear ultraviolet protection and use air purifying apparatus to go outside. This makes it difficult to understand how wild life still exists, though it apparently still does because Fremder has seen ravens feasting on the bodies of people who died accidentally.

Aficionados of Hoban's writing, of whom I am one, will certainly want to read this book, but I don't think it is an unqualified success. It is not always easy to follow the story, the writing is sometimes uncharacteristically diffuse, and there are far too many quotations (needing one and a half pages of small-print acknowledgements at the beginning).

5 June 2012

%T Fremder
%A Hoban, Russell
%I Jonathan Cape
%C London
%D 1996
%G ISBN 0224043706
%P 184pp
%K fiction

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