Xorandor by Christine Brooke-Rose
Review by S. D. Stewart
Jipnzab are precocious preteen twins living in Cornwall, England. Zab is short for Isabel and Jip is short for John Ivor Paul. They largely think in terms of computer programming logic, with some intermittent squabbling over the relevance of emotion, and they carry around their Poccom 3 (Pocket Computer) wherever they go. When they discover a rock-like being that is feeding on the nuclear waste at a facility managed by their father, all hell breaks loose. They soon find themselves at the center of a global political drama, out of which arises the highly dangerous threat of nuclear catastrophe.
As with her book Amalgamemnon, CB-R uses a loose nonlinear narrative structure upon which to pin issues of global concern while at the same time playing with logic and language. The book was published in 1986, the year of the Chernobyl meltdown, the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. I find this striking, as I suspect CB-R also likely did when it all went down in April of that fateful year. The anti-nukes movement has long been strong in England, with nuclear waste disposal logically being an issue of grave public concern in a country with limited space available for such purposes. As in Amalgamemnon, CB-R is also rather scathing in her treatment of politicians and the power elite here, which I think goes a long way in illustrating her less-than-positive view of how the world is run.
Human languages provide very few cues as to category of meaning.
Another of CB-R’s favorite themes is how language fails to facilitate truly effective communication. In this novel, she explores this by contrasting voice communication between Xorandor and the humans with the twins’ rigged-up machine-translatable solution of using Poccom 3 to interface direct (i.e. ‘softalking’) with Xorandor. As readers, we are able to see the limitations of language by reading transcripts of both verbal recordings and machine-readable Poccom 3 outputs. We see play out what can happen when people hear only what they want to hear, a possibility that is facilitated by the ease of misinterpretation that is inherent in human language, its imprecision and ambiguity laying hidden like pitfalls for us to fall into.
People with obsessions don’t hear what others say, you know, though they can seem extremely attentive.
Of course, being CB-R, she is not content to simply explore the surface limits of human language; she feels compelled to bore down deep to examine ‘the poverty of logic in language’, which she does through the artifice of continuous dialogues between humans and a ‘being’ that functions like a computer. The most compelling example of this is her probing at the fallacious potential of a human promise. (In the following quote Lady Macbeth refers to one of Xorandor’s offspring):
A promise was like a programming, he said, and Lady Macbeth was now so programmed.
The fallacy here is that the ‘being’ operating under machine logic perceives a ‘promise’ as a program, meaning something is expected to happen following a certain sequence of events. The computer-like being would obviously always run a program through to its completion, and so by perceiving the human promise as a program, it is expecting the same consistency in execution. However, we all know that human promises are often broken, rendering them ‘corrupt programs’, and as such they are of questionable reliabilty, thus requiring the element of faith on the part of the person accepting the promise, an element that is outside the realm of machine logic. There is also the consideration that programs are written by humans and as such can also be manipulated to function in a corrupt or faulty way. CB-R plays with this idea of ‘promise as program’ throughout the book, perhaps casting larger aspersions on humans and the ‘spaghetti logic’ they often trade in with each other.
Like in Amalgamemnon, CB-R manages to once again preserve the timeless nature of both her prose and her themes through the inventive use of language. The shorthand spoken by the twins in the book prefigures the chatspeak of today that has now long been ubiquitous, particularly among the age group to which Zab and Jip belong. Members of the millenial generation would likely feel right at home in a conversation with Jip and Zab. Poccom 3 might as well be an iPhone with a hacked OS. Nuclear waste is still a significant issue of global concern, even if you rarely find yourself thinking about it. World leaders still routinely fail and act like bloated sacks of posturing ego-mush. Women everywhere are still disparaged for being too emotional. There is nothing dated here.
I found this book to be more accessible than Amalgamemnon. Jip and Zab are imminently likable characters, and CB-R captures with splendid accuracy the dialogue of the genius 12-year-old as a type. The story is told in retrospect, narrated with pizzazz by the twins, and while CB-R does jump around a bit in time and plot (via the twins’ problems with ‘sequence control’), it is not as jarring as the herky-jerky narrative dance found in Amalgamemnon. There is a connected sequence including that book, this one, Verbivore, and Textermination, though I’m not sure how important it is to read them in order. I suppose I will not reveal all I know about that, despite my doubts as to how much of a spoiler it would be. Having only read the two books so far, I would recommend this one over Amalgamemnon if you plan to only read one, though I should warn you that such a plan could result in a fatal error…