When Times and Worlds Collide
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. This week I review The Museum of Second Chances by AE Warren. First published, Feb 26 2018.
Even more for the utopia and dystopia than many other forms of speculative writing, a fiction’s world is pivotal to a reader’s engagement. It can be elevated from a mere backdrop to the very (however disguised) subject of the book, its hook as well as its raison d’être; such a story’s characters are a means by which to explore and humanise the setting. The Museum of Second Chances imagines a society that is compelling and thematically rich. Its premise a self-professed eco-utopia, but one in which inherited collective guilt is deployed as a spurious, semi-mythic justification for state and class power, underscored by eugenics and corruption. This artfully plays with ambiguities in a genre that can sometimes overindulge gauche satire, if not bludgeoning didacticism. And even when exploring established motifs (genetic modification, revised official histories) here is a book that does so with an inventive wit that relates everything to its heroes.
We enter a post-apocalyptic world, but one long recovered from the material environmental disaster that gave rise to its status quo. Humanity is focussed on avoiding a repetition of past destructive mistakes, organising according to policies favouring a sustainability that is part technological, but also part unequally-applied austerity.
It all makes for a novel combination in which some aspects of the lifestyle of the characters feels anachronistic (a pastoral vision of village communities), while other aspects are futuristic (such as the available, but not perfectly distributed, medical, surveillance and bio technologies). At the heart of this world are technologically advanced 'museums' housing revived species of animal that humanity previously pushed into extinction, a testament to the new society’s priorities and values.
The titular museum is poignant, multifaceted and contradictory. AE Warren envisions these places as temples whose goal is to ideologically reinforce a dubious government philosophy predicated on a secular caste system, in which the non-genetically modified (Sapiens) are disempowered and condescended (blamed for the past) by their ‘superiors’ (enhanced Medius and deified Potiors). But as well as a bastion of oppressive power, the museum is a testament to an ideal set against its regressive authoritarian aims (one of preservation and Enlightenment cataloguing).
We experience this world directly through the point of view of Elise, a Sapien brought in as a 'Companion' (a handler to a Neanderthal named Twenty-One or Kit) to tackle a delicate problem. Our protagonist is simultaneously adrift but enmeshed in her world and, importantly, its troubled and violent history. It is her story we follow, and she works wonderfully as a focus in part because of how her own history (and that of her family) is craftily interwoven with the aforementioned world building. The novel then can reveal itself in its story, rather than in the didactic lumps that can so often haunt hard sci-fi concept pieces.
She is not the only character that adds such complexity to the novel: there are many notables that contribute succinctly to the evolving story, from the awkward and aloof Medius Samuel, to the jaded Sapien Companion, Luca. Just as each element of the novel’s world adds something, whether a tiny flying camera that detecst physiological cues for heightened emotions or a carefully contrived political economy to maintain Sapien poverty.
At each point, the author has considered and developed both the world and its denizens, and thereby teases out the consequences of their choices to form a narrative that disturbs, delights and provokes.The clash of time at the novels heart (suggested by the byline question, 'what happens when the future recaptures the past?') is a hopeful one; it suggests that the way out of any dystopia is often found in the temporal cracks, in its fragile relation to history and, therefore, its failure to master and defeat the future.
If you are interested, please check out the Amazon page for this fantastic book.
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