Conquest review by Nina Allan – alien invasion, coding and Bach | Fiction
IIn the future, Earth has won a grueling war against an alien civilization. As a monument to human resilience and his own awesomeness, a selfish billionaire plans to build a massive residential tower from a unique type of rock mined from the alien homeworld. The rock is black and gives off a curious heat. But what if he is also alive?
So goes the story of The Tower, the central chapter of Nina Allan’s brilliantly playful novel, which is presented as an excerpt from a novel of the same name, written by a fictional and almost forgotten mid-20th-century novelist. Conquest’s mainline, however, takes place in the present, where a group of online conspiracy theorists see The Tower as an accurate prophecy of a true coming war between the stars. This is, of course, known to Earth governments, which have a secret super-soldier program and likely beat people up for finding out too much.
Robin, a former police officer and now a private detective, is drawn into this feverish atmosphere for a disappearance case. A man named Frank, a math and coding whiz prone to mental illness, was invited by mysterious others on the conspiracy forum to meet in person in Paris, and he never returned. His girlfriend, Rachel, hires Robin to find him. It involves traveling to a dreary hotel in Scarborough, site of a journalist’s recent suspicious expiration, and a small town in Scotland where something strange may have landed in the woods.
Meanwhile, everyone also practices music criticism. Both Frank and Robin listen to a lot of Bach and explain – sometimes in somewhat unbelievable dialogue with third parties – why they prefer one recording over another and Bach over other composers. Compared to the unruly genius of Jean-Sébastien, it is said: “All Haydn is a form of politeness, like a watered down beer”. The Goldberg Variations, Violin Partita No. 2, and other pieces form the novel’s imagined soundtrack, which is surprisingly and satisfyingly woven at length into its thematic concerns.
Those who think that novels have nothing to do with pages of musicology will no doubt also recoil from a chapter that takes the form of an essay written by one of the characters of the extraterrestrial conspiracy, lecturer in cinema, which repeats the entire plot of the 2013 film Upstream Color, or another, allegedly by a photographer, which deals with the music of Hans Werner Henze and the poetry of Ingeborg Bachmann. These also prove relevant, as do other classic science fiction references such as The Day of the Triffids, Solaris and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1972 novel Roadside Picnic (adapted as Tarkovsky’s film Stalker ).
Very cerebral and metatextual, Conquest is also poetic – singing “the saffron light of late afternoon” in the suburbs of London – playful and often funny. Allan obviously enjoys making up hostile reviews for his own made-up novel. She’s insightful and fun, too, about the psychology of conspiracy theories. “Our secret enthusiasm for esoteric knowledge and occult drama is as old as time,” observes one character; meanwhile, conspiracy forums mention prominent American cosmologist Carl Sagan, “whom everyone … agreed was an FBI stooge”.
But could these overly online monsters be onto something? Could there be some dark truth in their overanalysis of disparate signs? For her part, Robin can’t help but half-believe the truth of interstellar warfare and the possibility that Earth has already been silently infected by inscrutable alien growth. Her detective story as she tries to find Frank provides sci-fi thriller propulsion, as thoughts of ecological collapse, astrobiology and artistic revolution swirl through the characters’ minds. Perhaps most impressively, Allan deftly manages to keep open all possible readings of events as plausible – until, perhaps, the very end.
In its themes of misinformation, potential microbiological Trojans and conspiracy, Conquest can also be read altogether as a joyously fantastical and elaborate Covid-19 allegory; if so, this is surely the best book yet to come out of the pandemic.