IIn the future, Earth has won a fierce war against an extraterrestrial civilization. As a monument to human resilience and his own excellence, a cocky billionaire plans to build a massive residential tower out of a unique type of rock mined from the alien homeworld. The rock is black and gives off a strange heat. But what if it is alive too?
So is the story of The Tower, the central chapter of Nina Allen’s brilliant ludic novel, presented as a quote from the novel of the same name, written by a fictional and nearly forgotten novelist of the mid-20th century. Victory’s main line, however, takes place in the present, where a bunch of online conspiracy theorists take The Tower to be an accurate prediction of an actual upcoming war between the stars. This is, of course, known to terrestrial governments, who have a secret supersoldier program and are probably killing people who find out too much.
Robin, an ex-cop and now private detective, is drawn into this murky environment for a missing persons case. A man named Frank, a mathematical and coding genius who suffers from mental illness, was invited by mysterious people to the conspiracy forum in Paris to meet in person, and he never returned. His girlfriend, Rachel, hires Robin to locate him. This includes a visit to a deserted hotel in Scarborough, where the suspicious death of a journalist recently occurred, and to a small town in Scotland where something strange may be brewing in the woods.
While all this is going on, everyone also practices music criticism. Frank and Robin both listen to a lot of Bach and explain – sometimes in slightly uncredited dialogue with third parties – why they prefer one recording over another and Bach over other composers. Compared to the unrestrained genius of Johann Sebastian, someone says, “the whole of Haydn is a kind of politics, like a watered-down beer”. The Goldberg Variations, Violin Partita No. 2 and other pieces form the fanciful soundtrack to the novel, which is wonderfully and satisfyingly woven into its thematic concerns.
Allen deftly manages to make all possible readings of events seem plausible – until, perhaps, the very end.
Those who think it’s no business for novels to include pages of music will undoubtedly also be put off by a chapter that takes the form of an essay written by one of the alien-conspiracy characters who appear in the film. has a lecturer, which rehearses the entire plot of 2013. The film Upstream Color, or the Other One, apparently by a photographer, which discusses the music of Hans Werner Henze and the poetry of Ingeborg Bachmann. These, too, prove relevant, as do other references to classic science fiction such as The Day of the Triffids, Solaris and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1972 novel Roadside Picnic (adapted as Tarkovsky’s film Stalker).
Highly cerebral and metatextual though it is, Conquest is also poetic – hymning the “saffron light of late afternoon” in suburban London – as well as playful and often witty. Allen apparently enjoys inventing hostile reviews for a novel of his own making. He’s also insightful and entertaining on the psychology of conspiracy theories. “Our secret enthusiasm for esoteric knowledge and occult drama is as old as time,” observes a character; Meanwhile conspiracy forums noted the famous American cosmologist Carl Sagan, “who everyone … agreed was a puppet of the FBI”.
But could these too-online craze be onto something? Could there be some mystical truth in their overanalysis of disparate signs? For his part, Robin can’t help half-believing in the truth of interstellar warfare, and the possibility that Earth has already been quietly infected by a mysterious alien evolution. Her detective story, as she tries to track down Frank, offers the propulsion of a straight-up sci-fi thriller, while ideas of ecological collapse, astrobiology, and artistic revolution romp through the characters’ minds. Perhaps most impressively, Allen deftly manages to leave open all possible readings of events as plausible – perhaps, until the very end.
In its themes of misinformation, potential microbiological Trojan horses, and conspiracy, Conquest can also be read as a joyous fantasy and elaborate Covid-19 allegory overall; If so, this is surely the best book yet to emerge from the pandemic.
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Victory by Nina Allen is published by Riverrun (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com, Delivery charges may apply.