Back in October I was writing a lecture on E.P. Thompson when I learnt, to my surprise, that he had written a sci-fi novel towards the end of his career. Published in 1988, The Sykaos Papers seems to have made very little impact, despite being generally well reviewed at the time as far as I can tell. The New York Times said it possessed ‘undeniable power’; the Observer opined it ‘will surely become a classic’. Well, it didn’t. When I asked around on Twitter there were only a few responses from people who had heard of it, let alone read it. ‘Should I bother with it, dear twitter?’ ‘It depends how into Thompson deep-cuts you are’… enough, I decided, to order a copy.
Now I’ve read it. I had low expectations – presumably it had fallen off the radar because it was junk, right? – but I must say I think it is a belter. It is a bit mad, I’ll grant you, but endlessly inventive and stimulating, and at times downright hilarious and at others deeply affecting – neither of which I was expecting. And, I’d say it is much more fluent than his academic writing, which I have heard described recently by a historian who shall remain anonymous as ‘wittering’. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I take the point, and I was expecting a slog – it wasn’t one. Anyway, I’m no great book reviewer – of fiction at any rate – and you can make your own mind up on this stuff, but I would recommend it to readers of this blog. With Christmas coming up and all that…
Not sure? I’ll try to give you a bit more to go on. The book’s central character is Oi Paz. He has been sent to Earth (which his people call ‘Sykaos’), sometime in the 1990s, from the planet Oitar, which has endured ecological catastrophe, to assess whether this planet might make a suitable location for a new Oitarian colony. What ensues is an anthropological face-off between Oi Paz and the humans (and in particular Dr Helena Sage, an anthropologist, who is the other major character in the book) as each side tries to unpack and decipher the other’s society and culture, often with hilarious consequences (not that Oi Paz laughs: his culture has no laughter, so he calls it ‘the Incongruous Noise’).
In a sense, you could call it a work of anthropological fiction, as much as science fiction, and there are interesting attempts to construct the alien subjectivity of Oi Paz (it’s also interesting, given that gender is often seen as his blind-spot, to witness Thompson’s attempt to construct the subjectivity of a female academic, Dr Sage). But historians should not feel left out, for the book’s main nod to Thompson’s own craft is the fact that the novel is structured as though the story of Oi Paz’s expedition has been reconstructed later, by the Oitarians, from a series of surviving PRIMARY SOURCES! There are the notebooks and diaries of Oi Paz and Helena Sage, interspersed with news reports, official communications, memos, etc, which the account – partial and multi-vocal, of course, like all histories – has been pieced together from.
I did wonder if part of the reason for the book’s low impact is that many of its key themes seemed less urgent as the Cold War ended and the 1990s progressed, dating it quickly. But the threat of nuclear war, a reckless U.S. President, a dangerous Russia, a tension between nationalism and the need for humankind to unite to confront its most pressing threats, ecological catastrophe – sadly, none of these feel like outdated themes today.
But Thompson’s prescience doesn’t end there, for the book also prefigures the social media age’s valorisation of the cat as a vital antidote to doom and gloom. The Oitarians worship them: they have good vibes. I strongly suspect, in fact, that E.P. Thompson himself would have been an avid consumer of, and contributor to, #AcadecmicsWithCats. A sci-fi novel, by E.P. Thompson, with cats! Surely that’s mad enough to warrant a look…
And if you do read it, or have done, please come back and share your thoughts in the comments section below – I’d love to know what other people think of it, positive or negative.