Maybe it is a coincidence that two books have come out at around the same time using the same conceit. That is, a lost 1950s science fiction manuscript that is the subject of some sort of conspiracy theory. Lavie Tidhar’s The Circumference of the World riffed heavily on 1950s and 60s science fiction and along the way takes on Scientology. In her latest book, Conquest, Nina Allan is exploring similar territory but she does so through the lens of cultural cues as diverse as Bach and Tarkovsky. But the driver of Conquest is familiar – the idea that a science fiction novella from the 1950s predicted a future alien invasion and it is up to a small group of switched-on individuals to prevent it.
One of those individuals is Frank. Frank is a coder who is also obsessed with Bach and possibly not the first person to relate Bach to coding. Frank falls in with an online group that believes that a novella called The Tower, and various other forms of popular culture are warning signs of a future alien invasion. Frank goes to meet with the group in Paris and never returns. His girlfriend Rachel hires damaged former policewoman turned private detective Robin to find him. While also digressing into the text of The Tower or essays by some of Franks fellow conspiracy nuts, the narrative follows Robin’s investigation in which she both tries and tries not to see conspiracies everywhere.
While Conquest is an investigation of sorts, the centre of the story is Robin who is still coming to terms with discovering who her birth mother was and the circumstances in which she was born. Robin also finds herself attracted to Rachel, a troubling factor which keeps her on the case even when it seems there is nothing left to find.
Conquest is a novel about how we see and engage with culture and the rise of conspiracy theories and the people who believe in them. To the point where Robin starts to wonder:
…why it is that most people are able to watch a film or read a book no matter how disturbing and never question the fact that it is simply a story, when there are others – often sensitive, vulnerable or imaginative individuals like Frank – who seem compelled to treat such stories as instalments in a secret narrative only they and their fellow initiates recognise the truth of.
Conquest is a treasure trove of cultural references to the point where two chapters are analyses of an obscure (but real) independent film from 2013 about an alien entity called Upstream Colour, and a vocal piece by German composer Hans Werner Henze called Nachtstücke und Arien. Allan does bring all of these disparate parts together but not necessarily in a way that will satisfy all readers. They may be content though with the more emotional throughline of Robin’s personal journey. Either way, there is plenty to savour in Conquest even if some of it may leave some readers scratching their heads.