Thursday 14 November 2019

Home-grown sci-fi renders a weird new world with shining clarity

Science Fiction: Number Games

Owen Dwyer

Liberties Press, trade paperback, 235 pages, €14.99

Thought-provoking: Owen Dwyer
Thought-provoking: Owen Dwyer
Number Games by Owen Byrne.
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

In 2116 AD, the nation state is no more. The world is run by a network of giant corporations, each ruled by a triumvirate of Chinese women. China's increasing economic dominance has been cemented, then expanded into the political; Rising Asia bestrides the planet, their hegemony capitalist rather than communist.

For many, this is good: they float in a Brave New World-esque bubble of money, technology and mindless pleasure-seeking. For others, not so much: the Reunited States of America is torn apart by war; many people elsewhere are mired in poverty and exclusion, though not officially admitted by the system.

Perhaps most significantly, women and men have swapped roles, with the former taking charge of everything and the latter limited to keeping home and looking good. It's as if global society stepped through a mirror and came out reversed. Meanwhile, Ireland is now known as Ireland-corpo: a relatively well-off though politically insignificant node of the all-encompassing network.

This is Ireland as you've never seen it before. And Number Games is Irish fiction as we've rarely seen it.

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For all our literary achievements, science fiction hasn't featured highly. I can't think of one Hibernian equivalent to William Gibson, Philip Dick or Ursula Le Guin. Dublin author Owen Dwyer makes a valiant effort at redressing that in Number Games. Though not without some faults, his novel is consistently smart, thought-provoking and well written.

His hero, and our lens through which to explore this strange new paradigm, is Li: a young man working at a low-to-middling level in Ireland-corpo, who spends most of his spare time taking drugs and flinging himself into reckless sexual adventures.

He's a likeable shmuck; the kind of guy with just enough depth to realise how shallow he is. He drifts through his existence with a vague sense of dissatisfaction gnawing at his psyche.

When he meets Tattoo (amusingly, he takes an age to bother learning her real name), Li is thrown into a globe-spanning series of adventures - perhaps misadventures is closer - which gradually reveal the true nature of the Corpo structures, and the misery masked by it.

Dwyer's story jumps from Dublin to Manchester, Athlone, Carlow, Capri and, finally, Seattle. The future of humanity has, through happenstance as much as design, ended up in his hands.

There's a lot to admire in Number Games, particularly how well rendered it is: the textures, rhythms, sounds and experiences of life in 2116 are expressed with shining clarity. And Dwyer writes really nicely, with choice phrasing, provocative observation and, for the most part, vivid characters who feel real, even in this weird else-world (Li's browbeaten dad is a minor but especially good example of how characters can charm and surprise).

Where Number Games faltered, for me, was in what aficionados term 'world-building'. Not so much the broad strokes - it's not totally implausible that the Chinese will rise to the top of the pile, women will gain ascendancy or capitalism will supplant democracy.

But I didn't fully buy some of the detail, particularly the swapping of sex roles. Would men and women really slough off millions of years of biological conditioning just like that? Would women in this putative fem-topia be as sexually aggressive as some men are now? Do basic hormonal realities not preclude this?

Anyway, small quibbles; and Li is an agreeable hero, within a story of real ambition and verve, to make you overlook them. Kudos to Liberties Press for taking a shot on home-grown sci-fi, and here's hoping Number Games is merely the first of many.

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