“There’s a lot going on here” – A River Called Time by Courttia Newland

Markriss Denny has grown up in the Outer City of Dinium, but when he’s both old and academically accomplished enough, he’s awarded a new life – a place in the Inner City, the Ark, an immense building-world where Dinium’s elites avoid the disease and filth of the outer world, the remnants of a long-ago war that wiped out millions. But – of course – it’s not as simple as all that. As Markriss is exposed to (and becomes complicit with) the hypocrisy and corruption of the Ark, he’s also convinced by a colleague to explore transmutation, a form of transcendental meditation, that enables him to access the astral planes, where he discovers that everything’s even more complex than he’s ever supposed…

A River Called Time traces Markriss’s multiple existences across parallel realities over the same twenty-year time period. In each incarnation he sees echoes and re-embodiments of the same people, the same situations always slightly offset: he’s a low-level Ark propagandist, an Outsider activist/terrorist, a Millennial in a London we’d recognise (checking out Kara Walker’s Turbine Hall show, voting in the 2019 UK general election), a high-level Ark reporter – and, between and within each possibility, his ka, his spirit, remains, negotiating the titular River of Time, grappling with his own purpose.

So this is a time-travel book, an alternate history book, and a dystopian exploration of societal inequality. The majority of it is rooted in an iteration of history in which European colonialism and the transatlantic slave-trade never happened; African religions, cosmologies and traditions dominate, with Christianity a minority-interest. Newland isn’t interested in a simplistic world where the eradication of racialised injustice equates to peace and goodwill; in Dinium, class discrimination is the key mover, and it’s manifested in the Ark, where the underclasses are forced literally underground. The version of Markriss’s life in which he’s in ‘our’ London is highly alert to race politics (see the Walker ref); his alternate timelines give us a world, at least, where Black characters have the main stage. His use of spirituality complicates it all further: we’ve got one timeline, for instance, that tracks a bombing campaign – a thriller, a piece of political espionage with chase-scenes and shoot-outs – but that’s also interspersed (as are all the strands) with references to mysticism. Technology (the sleeping pods that induce meditative projections) isn’t distinct from this (we’re not exploring Luddism) but intertwined with top-down political power; Newland draws a neat parallel between this kind of direct hypnosis by state powers and the ideologies perpetuated by the regular media. Markriss, a journalist in most timelines, is both within and without, struggling with whatever responsibility he therefore bears regarding the grim state of the world(s) – and here’s a barely-coded message to Newland’s middle-class readers.

In short: there’s a lot going on here. It’s a long book and it’s difficult to figure out (we reckon it’s supposed to be; Markriss is as baffled as we are) and it’s drawing together all kinds of usually-disparate ideas. It’s ambitious and fascinating. It’s hard to tell if it’s successful; but perhaps success, in this instance, simply is the co-mingling of critical dystopia and African cosmologies – the conjuring of the alternate. Stylistically, there’s a heavy poeticism to the prose in the early sections that we found distracting, but the accumulation of timelines drew us in anyway.

Any Cop?: Think An Orchestra of Minorities meets Cloud Atlas meets 1984. This is a book that straddles genres – SF, action-thriller, political suspense, coming-of-age – which gives it a broad, if precarious appeal. Its ambition is enough to recommend it, anyway.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

 

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