John Dickinson: We
David Fickling Books 2010
I found this an utterly gripping novel, especially after the slow and steady start signalled by its opening:
He had asked to be alone when he woke. After all, he had reasoned, from now on he would always be alone.
But are we really, truly alone? Will there be, though we may not be aware of the fact, someone else? Are we, like Cowper’s Alexander Selkirk, wrong in our assumptions that we are monarchs of all we survey, that we’re “out of humanity’s reach” and must finish our “journey alone” even at the edge of space?
This issue is at the heart of this novel, questions about Earth’s uniqueness as a cradle for life. And if there is life ‘out there’, what form will it take?
A mission, a little over half a century from now, is based on a distant planet’s moon (probably Neptune’s Triton, though neither body is ever mentioned), there to search for extraterrestrial life. The residual team of three — missing one of its original members — is joined by Paul Munro; he’s arrived from an Earth where nearly everyone is linked to the World Ear, a future development of the internet where individuals have implants to enable them to communicate directly with others without recourse to speech, to access necessary information and to regulate emotions.
Paul, having endured an eight-year journey in a kind of stasis, and with concomitant physical changes, is not only disorientated from the journey (and from being cut off from the WE) but now also has to adjust to the dynamics of a tight-knit team — an outsider therefore who can only feel isolated from undercurrents and relationships he has not been part of. As the telemetry executive his task is to discover why radio messages back to Earth are often corrupted, but he soon discovers that this is not the only communication that has become garbled: there are unspoken messages at the station that he needs to address.
We is a cleverly plotted speculative thriller, one I found totally immersive with fascinating human characters. It sets out to explore a number of ideas: what form might an alien intelligence take, how would humans react knowing that there was no way back to Earth, why do pioneers sometimes distrust the society they have left behind, how should one interact with those whom you dislike but on whose actions you rely for continued existence?
There are also so many literary echoes, both implicit and explicit, in these pages: Biblical tropes of Eden, the Tower of Babel, the Ark, the Annunciation; the claustrophobic and suspicious atmosphere of Sartre’s Huis Clos (in English translated as No Exit or In Camera); the heart-stopping moment when Robinson Crusoe discovered the footprint that wasn’t his in the sand.
Dickinson only had his attention drawn to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian 1924 novel We after he’d chosen his own title, but retaining it kept many of the issues he includes here relevant: whether the individual becomes completely subsumed in a collective thereby losing independence of action, the implications of the development of something like the World Ear (its acronym perfectly fitting its nature), the responsibly the individual might have in ensuring the continuance of the species.
But this isn’t just an ideas novel: I enjoyed the characters Dickinson created even if they weren’t particularly likable: Munro, from whose point of view we observe events, whose life with the WE meant he found metaphors incomprehensible; Erin Vandamme, responsible for the search for life forms but unable to manage emotions well; May, the station’s doctor, who may soon be called upon to do another role; and her partner Lewis, the station manager, who appears to have secrets to hide. Flawed individuals all.
Dickinson also had me accepting the technology that might be available in the 2070s, on a planet’s captured satellite where the outside temperature was not much above Absolute Zero. Here is an environment to enjoy vicariously, knowing that to close the book was to open the door to somewhere a lot more hospitable. Like Fred Hoyle’s classic The Black Cloud (1957) in which an alien comes a-visiting, We postulates that our attempts to go out to discover alien life may be fraught with danger.
My sixth library book this year in my attempt to keep supporting my local branch: remember, use it or lose it!