Arcadia by Iain Pears. Review of the book and app
In the 1960s, Rosie Wilson walks through a strange pergola while looking for Professor Jenkins, the errant cat she is minding for Professor Lytten at his house in Oxford.
On Mull, in the future, Angela Meerson, a scientist, is about to have her life’s work taken off her. But she has other ideas.
In Anterworld, (Henry Lytten’s fantasy creation) Rosie’s sudden appearance is about to make irrevocable changes, not only to her life but that of other worlds and people.
It is evident that Iain Pears is an experienced and thoughtful author. He has to be if Arcadia is to stand any chance of holding its own in both the traditional reading sequence as well as the more flexible approach afforded by an app. The type of high quality prose demanded by a well written, traditional book must also survive its fragmentation in an app where a reader decides the path they will take to the story’s conclusion. If this does not happen then the app runs the risk of becoming little more than a gimmick or a disaster. It is a very tricky balancing act. So has it worked?
The worlds and characters within Arcadia have a pleasant, old fashioned feel to them in terms of writing style. Anterwold is the type of fantasy novel that would have been written by someone involved with a critiquing group whose members include C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien. Mull is a science fiction thriller set in the future that resonates with the work of Ursula LeGuin. Oxford gives off a whiff of an early John Le Carre. Each character has a distinctive voice. For example, Rosie’s story initially reads like a young adult novel, but displays an evolving maturity as she progresses through her adventures in Anterworld. Jack More, the security officer at Mull, becomes a Jack Reacher type of loner surviving in a dangerous world though the intelligent use of his own resources, while he completes his honorable mission. It feels as if Henry Lytten, the Oxford professor and retired spy, has met George Smiley on more than one occasion. But it is the resilient Angela Meerson, as the mouthpiece of scientific explanation, the author of acerbic observations and the possessor of quick wit, who is my favourite character. For a woman on the run she is more like the hunter than the hunted. As one on the lynchpins of the piece, Angela’s primary function is as the narrator of her scientific endeavours and their effect on all the worlds. Her explanation of time loops and achieving the goal of getting a fly to eat its own egg is just one of her of experiments in understanding the time travel paradox. The description of her work with Lewis’s and Tolkein’s writing, to create a suitable world within her contraption, is priceless. She is such a wonderful character there is an Angela Meerson series just begging to be written.
The uncluttered text provides enough brush strokes to give the reader a sense of each world, while allowing their imagination to fill in the rest. This is a sensible approach, because the book had to remain readable within the multiple pathways of the app. Although it is also possible Pears may also be attempting to create interest from the young adult market. If this is the case, then the use of the app might be a logical approach. However, young adults are a very demanding market and expect a great deal of function from their apps.
The app (not yet available on the Android platform) is attractive and easy to use on both the iPad and iPhone (on which I do a great deal of my reading when out and about). Pears’ writing works well in the app format and does allow the reader to pursue different storylines in many different directions without losing sight of the overall narrative. It is easy also to navigate around the app, even on an iPhone, although the size of the smaller phones might create some difficulties for those with big fingers. There might also be an issue with those who do need a large screen to see more clearly, because not enough of the pathways and their chapters can been seen together to achieve an adequate overview for navigation. But there is good sensitivity and therefore accuracy on the touchscreen. The zoom in and out, as well as the ability to shift quickly up and down the character timelines, worked well. Certainly, when it came to reviewing the clues strewn about the worlds and timelines leading to the lightbulb moment of how it all fits together, I found the app easier to move around than using the search mechanism on the e-book.
As a book that uses app technology the price is reasonable. But if Arcadia is considered as an app, then it may be thought overpriced because of the many ways in which other media and functions can be added to enhance the basic text. Certainly many young adult readers would be expecting add-ons and app aficionados might be disappointed. Although many book addicts might argue that such additions might be considered distractions. I would have liked some way of tagging various points around the app with notes as I picked through the puzzle of who fits where and why. A method of discussion of the text amongst the readers accessed through the app might also be an interesting extra for those seeing the app primarily as a book.
There is also the single ending. As a child I loved the books where you were able to follow the story in different directions and end up with different conclusions depending on your reading pathway. The Arcadia app has a similar feel to it. So at some point, if the app is developed further (which is another expectation of app buyers), it would be interesting, given the ‘science’ around which the various stories hinge, to have the opportunity to be able to read through to different endings. But that would be a Herculean task considering the different pathways. It is interesting that despite the single ending, comment has been made about the complexity of the book. For a reader to be able to retain multiple characters and a convoluted storyline, while making sense of it all, is not an unusual phenomenon when it comes to science fiction or fantasy. Fans of old computer text games should also have no trouble with different narrative pathways.
Ultimately the sign of a good science fiction or fantasy book is whether it was enjoyable and gave the reader something to think about. Arcadia did both for me. I also enjoyed shifting from the, relatively, linear structure of the book to the more flexible app. On the whole I think Arcadia is a brave foray in bringing the world of literature into the realm of new technology, and has been a worthwhile endeavour. It will be interesting to see where the concept might be taken in the future.