I was both bemused and amused by a quote on the cover of this that stated the book recalls Orwell’s 1984 and Wells’s The Time Machine. It does neither. If the work is akin to any other work of science fiction it is to Lem’s Solaris or the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic. Because whilst it is set in a dystopian future, the story itself is about the individual and their sense of identity. It is much more about inner space than outer space.
Essentially the book is about Fremder’s quest to discover what it is that makes him unique. It is everyone’s quest who ever gave any thought to who they were and what it is that has shaped them. Hoban has simply used a future setting to accentuate the philosophical questions.
And he does it with his usual assured use of language, constructing a story that perfectly synchronises content and form. Indeed, this is one of those (many) books you can hand to someone who declaims all science fiction to be poorly written pulp about alien invasions. The story is complex, the imagery is striking, and the reader is made to work without ever feeling left behind.
Hoban is vastly under-rated, in my view. He is a fiercely intelligent writer, witty, one who has never settled into a rut or routine. He writes with equal skill for children and adults (in itself a remarkable achievement), and makes no compromise to fashion or the ‘literary’ world. As a result, his books are far more passionate and engaging than many that are lauded.