HARM review

Renowned writer tackles “anti-terror” torture

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Author: Brian Aldiss

Publisher: Duckworth

225 pages • £14.99

ISBN: 978-0-715-63699-2


A British muslim is arrested by the anti-terrorist organisation HARM. Under the stress of interrogation Paul Ali begins to experience life as Fremant, interstellar colonist of the far future.

HARM spins swiftly past, a mix of subject matter and flavours. The scenes on the planet Stygia are a surrealistic dream of genocide and culture clash. The main character’s shifting realities recall Philip K Dick; ditto the way even halfway-decent characters can turn nasty. It’s a scientist acting in the name of research who kills Stygia’s last intelligent alien.

The future humans are reconstituted and slightly brain-damaged. Not only their dialogue, but the whole of the novel reads pleasantly like the translation of a Czech allegory: “Sports were held. The highlight was billed as the Kontest. In a small rectangular area two piles of small stones were arranged, no stone bigger than 50mm in diameter. One pile was pointed red, one blue. These were the weapons of the two contestants.”

The prison sequences are a bit heavy-handed, but at their best read like slapstick Kafka:

“The moustache twitched. ‘Your father was a black.’
‘Liar! Ugandans are black.’
‘We came from Hyderabad. We were not Ugandans, we are not blacks.’
‘What have you got against blacks?’”

The core question is not Paul Ali’s relationship to his star-colonist identity but to his own reality. At the end we have no way of knowing which of his three Muslim lives is real, if any. The spaceship may be called New Worlds, but this doesn’t feel like a novel by an SF writer. It reads more like a foray into the genre by a literary author. It’s wonderful to see this doughty old fighter for SF-as-literature taking on such fraught and contemporary themes.

Geoff Ryman

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