Book Review -
The Anomaly, by
Hervé Le Tellier

A line should be drawn between ‘speculative fiction’ and ‘genre fiction’. Fantasy and sci-fi are examples of the latter which get lumped in with the former. Which is fine, I suppose – labels become labels because they’re widely-understood shorthand for something. 

The term ‘speculative’ fiction, however, would better refer to a specific subgenre. A subgenre in which – to simplify somewhat (but not entirely) – the writer has gone, “Hey, you! Imagine if this happened!” Pure speculation, in short, rather than the deeply thought-out, nuanced, and realistic (on their own terms) worlds and galaxies in which good sci-fi and fantasy tend to be based. 

I’m aware that all fiction is speculative to an extent. That’s why it’s fiction. Fantasy, and even more so sci-fi, simply tend to be more extreme in their speculations. If they’re well-written, however, they will still be good narrative literature; that is, they will have a coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end (I’m aware how very mainstream I sound for calling these traits ‘good’. Fans of Finnegan’s Wake and the works of Thomas Pynchon are rolling their eyes right now). 

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, for example, could hardly be more ‘out there’, in its imaginings of a sentient race of super-spiders evolving at incredible speed. It’s sci-fi, but it’s still a bloody good story, brilliantly-structured, and with an actual – and satisfying – conclusion. 

Compare and contrast this to Arthur C. Clarke’s early sci-fi classic, Rendezvous with Rama. Clarke’s setup here is simply ‘Imagine if a massive spaceship suddenly entered the solar system’. Sure, it’s a cool and intriguing proposition, but… that’s it. The characters are rubbish, there’s little actual story, and the ‘conclusion’ is actually utterly inconclusive and unsatisfying. It is, in short, a nice idea, but a lacklustre piece of narrative fiction. It is pure speculation, and little else. 

Enter The Anomaly! 

‘What if there were two of you?’ the book cover asks… and that’s the whole book! 

I’m being a little reductive, of course… but not actually that reductive. 

The entire plot can be summarised (spoiler-free) as – ‘the anomaly’ takes place, and results in identical copies materialising of all the people involved. The anomaly itself is narrated in one chapter, around halfway through. The preceding half of the book is simply setting up all of the many, many characters. The succeeding half studies how each of them reacts to suddenly being doubled. 

In the latter half especially, as the extensive contemplation luxuriously drags on, you begin to feel as if not only the setup, but the whole book, is simply a vehicle for Le Tellier philosophising on the nature of existence. 

herve le tellier, author

Specifically, he seems to have read about simulation theory (not a new idea), and have gotten so excited about it that he decided a book simply must be written. The threadbare narrative, and those many, many characters, were clearly built first with this theory in mind, and subsequently around the inciting incident (the anomaly) which would prompt the characters to reflect on the nature of existence, and the probability (or not) of genuine reality. 

As noted, there are a lot of those characters. And I mean a lot

Courtesy of what is obviously his own writerly double (very smart) within the novel, Le Tellier essentially tells us he knows there are too many characters; but also, that he doesn’t care. The characters themselves aren’t terrible by any means, with most having fairly compelling stories of their own (the bizarre child abuse storyline notwithstanding – bolting it on here, and not bothering to actually explain or investigate it in any way, feels tacky to say the least). However good they might be, however, having so many characters in such a relatively short novel inevitably means they lack depth. Also, on a practical level, you simply forget who’s who until Le Tellier drops you a hint upon a scene change (which sometimes takes a while). 

I don’t want this to come across as a hit job, because – despite my moaning – I didn’t dislike (double negatives are fine – go away) actually reading the book. I found it… fine. The writing is extremely accessible while still being fairly clever, and features its fair share of smart witticisms. Some of the existential thought experiments are interesting, although the religious ‘debates’ are almost laughably undercooked (Rabbi: “The Torah says this.” Imam: “Well the Quran says this!”). 

The Anomaly is a short and quick read, which – while it all seems very philosophical – won’t actually tax your brain too much. Overall though, it is ‘speculative’ fiction in the truest sense. ‘What if there were two of you?’ is the elevator pitch. Simulation theory is the concept put up for speculation. On few occasions indeed does it feel like a convincing ‘novel’, nor – ultimately – is it a satisfying reading experience. 

It is very, very easy to come up with an attention-grabbing idea. ‘What if a spaceship appeared in our solar system?’ ‘What if there were suddenly two of you?’ 

Crafting an actual story around that idea, however, is another matter entirely. 

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