Book review

Useful Idiots by Jan Mark (2004)

Imagine this: once upon a time, say, any time about now, all the museums are closed down and the collections dispersed back to their countries of origin. All those bits of bone and skeleton are sent back and given a proper burial by their own people.

A good thing? Possibly. But it will bring to an end our acquisition of knowledge about who we are, won't it. No more digging up our past, nothing to compare finds with. Now imagine this: all our knowledge is stored in computers. One day a computer virus is released on the unsuspecting world. It wipes our knowledge away. It doesn't mean that mankind is lost to progress. Knowledge can be reclaimed. Systems can be rebuilt. Society can be manipulated. But the old knowledge, the kind of stuff that is perhaps best forgotten, is left behind. It is still there somewhere in the old books, in university libraries - but it is very much on the edges of acceptability. Archaeology is the lost science. It stirs up cultural differences. And we're all the same now, all Europeans, in the Rhine Delta Islands, 2255.

Meet Merrick Korda. He's an archaeologist, so he's a bit of an outsider. He hasn't had very much practice at independent, creative thought so far, but he's about to get plenty. His boss at the university hears news of a body out on the windswept beach, on the edge of the fens: Parizo Man. It's a bit of a delicate issue, of course, a skeleton exposed by the biting winds. Is it an ancient death? and therefore the undoubted province of the archaeology department. Is it a recent death? and therefore the business of the politi. Or is it within the Aboriginal reserve? and therefore subject to the local bizarre and unsettling burial customs.

Merrick Korda embarks, almost accidentally, on a quest for the truth about the Aboriginal peoples. Why are they called Oysters? He's following clues gleaned from Parizo Man. He considers how and why the man died, and what he was doing when he died. And Merrick Korda devises a little experiment of his own, to recreate the conditions, just to see if his theory is correct. It's the only way to find out, you see, since there is no absolute knowledge any more.

Just one thing though. People don't change. The human condition never changes. Merrick is about to be misled, betrayed and worse by almost everyone around him:

The noble Oysters, backs against the wall, feet in the mud, maintaining their right to be Inglish in life and in death, were no more high-minded than any other Europeans, the politicians, the Senate and librarians of the University of New Cambridge, the hitman who had pursued him through the Moss, the unknown other who had tried to kill him in the stacks...

Merrick's on his own, not much older but a lot wiser, dismayed and disappointed:

Only Merrick Korda, the useful idiot, had had a higher purpose: to uncover the truth that might perhaps come to the price of a pearl, and his moment of truth was imminent.

A strange, compelling story. I think you'll find the ideas fascinating.

What can I read next?

Jan Mark has written another book like this one, packed with strange and exhilarating ideas, for older readers:

If you enjoy poking about in depressing dystopia, have a look at this hopeless prognosis for mankind, by Julie Bertagna:

Or you might like to look at this powerful story by Melvin Burgess. Its actually a recreation of a Viking saga but like all fantasies, it has to be set somewhere inaccessible, and Burgess put it in the future:

The other option for a good fantasy is to set it in the past. You might enjoy this serious time-travel story by Susan Price:

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