Monday, February 14, 2005

Piers Antony, Race Against Time (New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1973).

I like everything about this book. Not something I’ve said much.

John is vaguely aware that there is something off about where he lives. He is white but he has seen tan under his classmates’ skin. His kitten had a prehensile tale and when he told his mother—he had looked up cats—it disappeared. On the day the book starts he jokingly tells his dalmation dog to climb a tree, and it does, its claws retracting and flexing to help.

This time something clicks and John realises that his home is somehow fake. He works out how to get beyond the perimeter, and begins exploring. At the same time, he starts to plant a code in his letters to Betsy, a girl he has been told to correspond with.

The day Betsy is due in town for the first time, Ala turns up instead, a black African girl. They talk and Ala thinks she is from 975AD and is on the way to marry an Arab. The next day, John discovers he has supposed to have forgotten it all. When Betsy arrives that day, the two of them immediately escape, using the various things that—between them—they have made ready such as tan skin paint. Using the co-ordinates Ala gave them they find first the Chinese enclave, where Pei and Meilan are, and then find Ala and Humé.

By this time they have long worked out that the world is made up of Standards, concerned to be conformist and with—to add an extra twist—a mathematical system in base 8.

In their escape all the young people (they aren’t children) display ingenuity and intelligence: we are treated to code breaking, a rudimentary abacus, a discussion measuring the earth and working out how to reverse engineer co-ordinates. The I-ching manages to be discussed without getting all spritual on us and there are some sane and sensible discussions of leadership. Even the sexism is handled with rationality: ie when they have to decide on a leader, the women exempt themselves (this was written in 1973, and none of the cultures portrayed are later than 1960), but the men decide that the women should choose the leader. They do it by drawing hair ribbons and Pei “wins” but decides that John will lead the space flight, Pei any intellectual stuff in between and Humé. (because he comes from a warrior culture) the landing on earth.

When they get to Earth they discover that they are on the same planet, the other half is Standard, this half the ruined earth. Each is treated to a view of the place they are engineered from and the shocking truth (a bit muddled they admit) of what happened to Earth. They also learn and work out that the people of Standard have been wedded to conformity, but that a small group of people felt that racial difference should be reintroduced in order to recreate dynamism. But that the products—themselves—are considered as monuments.

This is where Anthony really pulls it off. Throughout this book, the protagonists have experienced attraction across the colour divide. What Anthony shows us at the end is them both accepting but working through, this reasoning: that is, accepting that the Standards may be right to try to recreate diversity but protesting that it be so rigid and so racial, “Let them all go back—for a while. Soon they would be grown, more knowledgeable, better able to cope with the world of the Standards.” (178). Although they have been outwitted in their guerrilla warfare in the book, all six of them realise that the struggle isn’t over. “The Standards did not need race: they needed an example. The world did not need monuments; it needed action.” (179)

At the end of the book the main character, John, has matured enough to give his dog to Humé. They have all shattered the worlds they were brought up in, and a very strong implication is given that they are about to shatter the world of Standard. Knowledge cannot be pushed back into its bottle, and while they are all heading home, it is a staging post, not a place of refuge.


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