Out of this world

7th October 2005 at 01:00
Adventures across reality's boundaries can offer a context for examining big issues, says Geoff Fox

Bloodsong By Melvin Burgess Andersen Press pound;14.99

Odin's Voice By Susan Price Simon and Schuster pound;12.99

The White Darkness By Geraldine McCaughrean Oxford University Press Pounds 12.99

The Electric Telepath By Jan Mark Definitions pound;4.99

A Bridge to the Stars By Henning Mankell Translated by Laurie Thompson Andersen Press pound;5.99

Melvin Burgess's Bloodsong gains much of its blazing energy from its Norse roots, for the storyline of his trilogy (begun with Bloodtide) echoes that of the Volsunga saga. In a dystopian Britain where London is a ravaged bombsite and lawless warlords rule a restless populace of humans, mutants and clones, Burgess's Sigurd journeys into a rusting underworld city astride his machine of a horse. Here he discovers, loves and eventually rescues Bryony - the novel's Brunhilde counterpart.

Burgess writes with far more impressive range and power than readers of Junk or Doing It might anticipate. True, there is a fair amount of effing and excrement, along with some rough and ready shagging; and the dialogue can be coarse-grained to a degree that seems at odds with characters' thoughts. But he believes this trilogy "is probably my best work to date" - and with reason. Events may be violent, confused and arbitrary: encounters with Odin and the slaughtering of Fafnir are never likely to be quiet affairs. But Sigurd's adventures seem to be written in raging fire, and they are balanced by moments of tenderness and vulnerability.

The devious old god turns up again in Odin's Voice, though here he is an object of worship in another futureworld, not unlike that of The Handmaid's Tale: here, too, there are the free and the subservient ("the bonders").

Like Margaret Atwood, Price is interested in the exercise of control devoid of compassion. The members of the dominant social class are "designed", with little awareness of others or self.

A section in which the created-free Affroditey, one of the two central characters, becomes a bonder is almost physically painful to read as her dignity and privileges are stripped away. This is a calculating world in which Price persuades her readers to care for characters who have few initially sympathetic qualities.

The characters and adventures which engulf Sym, the uncertain heroine of Geraldine McCaughrean's The White Darkness, might well defeat or irritate the literal-minded; but if you enjoy, say, a demented uncle who might have wandered in from a dark version of Aladdin, then Sym's obsessive Uncle Victor is your man.

Her only reliable companion on an improbable Antarctic adventure - her "brain child" - is her invisible and talkative friend, dead these 90 years, Captain Titus Oates (the one who mentioned, as he left Scott's doomed tent, that he might be some time). There are dangerous undercurrents to this story since, for a while, you might well fear that Uncle Victor has sexual designs upon Sym. Yet McCaughrean writes with such precision, elegance and wit that the whole desperate journey is infused with humour.

In The Electric Telepath, Jan Mark treats serious matters with a comic touch as she leads us down the mean, but moral, streets of a Northern town in 1894. Young Elijah has grown up in a strict chapel community, where believers discipline themselves to listen for the Lord's still, small voice. Elijah is excited by what he learns in school and in the library of the work of Faraday, Hertz et al. Discovered conducting an experiment with home-made equipment, he is taken over by the chapel elders, who hope he can harness the air waves to reach unbelievers in the neighbourhood.

This engaging story is charged with issues of social class, hypocrisy, science versus fundamentalism and, for Elijah, a sexuality awakening by the flirtatious but deceiving Lily.

Joel Gustaffson, the 12-year-old hero of A Bridge to the Stars, lives in the far north of Sweden. His mother has abandoned him and his moody father can be unapproachable. Although this book, by a noted writer of detective fiction, occasionally seems self-consciously "written for children", the story of how Joel grows beyond a dangerous young friend and makes two older friends (like him, alone on the margins of the community), is a thoughtful read. Just as McCaughrean's Sym no longer needs her Captain Oates, so Joel can discard the dog who, in his dreams, seemed to be leading him to the stars; instead, he's learned the nature of his father's love.

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