by John Wilding
(First Tier, 243 pgs, p/b)
To the public, Stephen Hadley may be an unpleasant person but he is still a leading geneticist of his day - the mid 1990s. His privileged background belies the activities that pervade his secret lifestyle. A life that encompasses greed, drugs, revenge and even murder. But when one of his genetic experiments goes awry, Stephen's selfish approach to life is thrown into turmoil as he is thrust forward in time, to a desperate world where anarchy reigns and the State is impotent against rampaging, murdering street gangs.
Time travel may be at the centre of John Wilding's second novel but the author spares little time on the whiz-bang factors of the plot's science fiction trappings, and instead concentrates on the socio-political milieu that emerges as the world takes its first uneasy steps in the new millennium. And it is a prediction of a pretty dreadful future for us all. The worrying thing is, it all seems alarmingly plausible. Wilding expertly applies much effort in creating a group of believable characters in the substantial build-up to the moment of time travel, and what he presents is more akin to a mystery thriller than fantasy. The setting in the comfortable middle classes of rural Oxfordshire is eloquently portrayed, even if the characters' dialogue and accents are occasionally overdone. It is this grounding in the real world, populated by real people that is the key to why this book is so exceptional. The last thing one would predict from this initial scenario is a story that takes a bizarre leap into the middle of the twenty-first century - until it did I'd almost been expecting the appearance of Inspector Morse! All credit to the author, for not only does the transition require only the smallest leap of faith in the reader but when we arrive in the future it is just as convincing at the present.
The leading character, Stephen Hadley, is eminently loathsome. Equally, those that surround him invite little admiration. Wilding clearly manages to bring off something of a coup then having created a real page-turner. Indeed, when Hadley finds himself in life threatening circumstances, you suddenly realise that you are rooting for him to survive - having forgotten his own evil deeds that led him there in the first place. Once in the near-future setting, stylistically, there is a quaint, old-fashioned, almost naive feel to the novel (construction workers wear silver suits and are aided by robots) that makes one suspect that the author is not well-versed either in science fiction or fantasy literature. But this isn't necessarily a drawback and in fact lends to the book an air of HG Wells or Jules Verne mixed (somewhat quirkily) with pulp SF novels of the 1950s. There are times however, when the future technological details don't convince; videos, teletype machines, 'plasto-steel' and other archaic artefacts still seem to be commonplace items in the world of 2042. The reader is left wondering if perhaps a little more research into emerging technologies would have helped paint a future with more believable physical detail.
There are few other niggling particulars that appear to have not been fully-considered. Such as how Hadley manages to repair and operate a space centre's main control room but, somehow, cannot master the controls for a newspaper database in the same building! The protagonist also spends seven chapters in the future before food is even mentioned. Up until that point I was wondering just how one would sustain oneself in the world that is portrayed. It also happens that the slang language spoken by the street gangs is remarkably similar to the 'nadsat' language used by similar roving gangs in Anthony Burgess' classic A Clockwork Orange. These wrinkles, in an otherwise impressive novel, should have been picked up by Wilding's editor and, to be fair to the author, it is there where much of the blame for this must lie. This idea is supported by a few typesetting inconsistencies scattered through the book's 243 pages and one page that contains three basic but jarringly obvious typos.
But back to the good points, of which there are more than enough to keep you occupied. One of the most successful aspects of the book is its structure. The events are presented as the truth by the author in a engrossing introduction. Moreover, Wilding explains in detail exactly how the journal of Stephen Hadley came into his possession and how all he has done is see fit to publish it for you the reader to judge as you will. Of course, if this were true then this would be the publishing event in the history of literature! Yet, once more, the author manages to make the explanation sound uncannily realistic, not least because some of the 'facts' he presents can be corroborated. By the end of the novel I almost felt compelled to look in the telephone book for the greater Oxfordshire area to see if there really was a Hadley family that fitted the bill! Hiding behind a striking and seriously spooky cover, The Journal of Stephen Hadley is a fascinating and compelling chiller and fans of the unusual that like their literature grounded in the real world and populated with realistic characters will find that this book really does deliver the eerie goods.
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