Christine Brooke-Rose

Xorandor comes bristling with warnings against frivolity. Frank Kermode says menacingly that Brooke-Rose is the only serious practitioner of narrative who's writing in English; other critics invoke Fowles, Burgess, Hoban, Hofstadter, Derrida and Enid Blyton....

Certainly there are plenty of artful narrative devices surrounding the conventional SF core wherein a sentient rock / natural computer / radionuclide-eater causes world complications. (Best not to think too hard about the unlikely conjunction of ultra-high-density logic circuits and hard radiation.) The narrators -- two mildly repellent child computer-freaks -- enmesh this in argumentative meta-narrative about the best order to report the facts... clouded by amusing computerspeak, studded with tape transcripts (complete with pause timings, P 4.36 sec) and chunks of pseudo-program: REVIEW DEC 1 "PAGES OF BLOCK CAPS NUMB THE MIND" ENDEC 1 ENDREVIEW.

All this tricksiness, this game of distancing the actual events, gives them more force than straight narrative might have. Much of it is funny, too. A demented rock, stoned on radio-caesium, lurking in a reactor with a view to nuclear detonation, is hung up (in more than one sense) on Macbeth. ACKN.... AND OFTENTIMES TO WIN US TO OUR HARM THE INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS TELL US TRUTH.... LOOP.

It's the computerspeak that provoked the Riddley Walker comparisons, and indeed lots of this is witty and well-researched. There must be a lurking joke in "eproms" for "school holidays", and one needs no degree in computer science to savour the expletives "Booles!" or "Debug!" But there are false notes. Isn't "diodic" ("triffic") a bit out of date? Mentions of "erased ROM" (the state of having forgotten something) induce carpings: Read-Only Memory doesn't get erased, and human memory (which is written to as well as read) is more like mass storage -- disk or WORM. Then comes technobabble about whether the computer/rock has "a mass memory and a scratch pad memory and a dynamic memory and an EPROM and... did he do his type-checking at runtime or compiletime." The assumptions are absurdly question-begging, as though one's thoughts on encountering an alien were (a) the location of its vermiform appendix, and (b) whether it attended divine service on Saturday or Sunday.

Xorandor (the name comes from the logic operators XOR AND OR, the most inspired SF nomenclature since that early spaceship called "A-star-go") is a thoroughly researched, cleverly written and intellectually titillating fake. Brooke-Rose's cerebral antics with computers have everything except the conviction that comes of genuine understanding. Yes, I know they said much the same about the English language and Joseph Conrad....