Sinclair McKay. The Daily Telegraph. March 22, 2008
These days even the woolliest readers and viewers must have a grasp of theoretical physics. There are temporal paradoxes in the BBC series Ashes to Ashes and the other night a character in an ITV drama called The Fixer explained the theory behind Schrödinger's Cat. CP Snow can put that in his heavenly pipe and smoke it.
So what might once have seemed a daunting proposition - a novel that deals in questions of science and the limits of knowledge and imagination - is actually a mouth-watering one, especially when written by an author with so light a touch as Andrew Crumey, who has fused a thrilling personal narrative with quantum mechanics in a way that somehow looks, well, rather easy.
In early 1970s Scotland - evoked in all its pebble-dashedness - we see the formative years of Robbie Coyle, in the bosom of his loving family, asking his devoutly socialist father awkward questions about everything from gravity to parental love. Robbie wants to be an astronaut and commandeers a cupboard beneath the kitchen sink as a pretend space capsule. As he grows older, life becomes a round of excruciating school discos and intriguing ideological conflicts between his teachers. He undertakes daring explorations of the grounds of a large old wooded estate that is being taken over for secret military use.
Robbie the dreamer listens to the hissing signals from his father's antique "red star'' radiogram and yearns to cross "the inter-dimensional void''. Then suddenly there is an axial flip and we are in the alternative reality of that old estate - now the Installation - where the young man Robert Coyle and several comrades have been selected for an enigmatic space mission. Britain, allied with Russia since the end of the Second World War, is a totalitarian Communist regime. The Installation, with its uniformly depressing streets and quietly crushed workers, is a microcosm of this steel-grey world. Surveillance is absolute and dissent ruthlessly dealt with.
Coyle's comrades start to disappear one by one, and he stumbles across a secret revolutionary plot among some of the workers. His sinister superiors bear a curious resemblance to the younger Coyle's ideologically opposed teachers - indeed, this entire world is filled with disorientating echoes. The countdown to Coyle's strange mission ticks on. The authorities want him to rendezvous in space with a mysterious astral phenomenon called the Red Star, from which they are receiving curious, whispering signals. They do not expect Coyle to survive the encounter.
In the midst of all this, there is grubby, mechanical sex and horrible betrayals; yet somehow Coyle finds himself drawn to people who, despite the suffocating, brutal society they live in, cannot help keeping hope and kindness alive.
Crumey's narrative is by turns slyly amusing, satirical and chilling. He finds resonant poetry in the highest science and the opposite of poetry in his wondrously grim and sleazy Installation brothel, the Blue Cat (the name of which might ring a bell for Magic Roundabout fans – the novel is full of such pleasing pop-cultural references, not least of which is The Wizard of Oz).
Crumey is also brilliant at tonal shifts; for instance, the novel's quieter moments, with young Robbie's mother and father facing up to the prospect of old age, are extremely poignant. Drawn with a deceptively comic touch, there are many characters throughout that you find, to your surprise, you care fiercely for.
Is this all the precocious daydream of a 12-year-old boy - an elaborate extrapolation of the world around him? Or does the parallel 19-year-old Robert Coyle have corporeal being? Back in our world, the ripples of the events in Robbie's life are like concentric circles widening, then closing in once more. Can the astronaut Coyle, from an alternate reality, exist in "our'' world? Is one real and the other a delusion? This elegant puzzle deepens, much more satisfactorily than, say, Kubrick's similarly mind-fangling 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968).
This a surprisingly moving novel about the impersonal forces - be they political, quantum, temporal or otherwise - that can threaten or shatter the bonds of love, and of family life. Never has astrophysics seemed so touching and funny.
Roz Kaveney. Time Out. March 27, 2008
The nature both of writing and reading fiction is that we explore other ways of being ourselves - in this, fiction is like dreaming, or like inhabiting the many alternate worlds of sf and quantum physics. Andrew Crumey's novels have always been as much about the possibilities of metafiction as about the three-dimensional characters he creates; 'Sputnik Caledonia' is at once sensitive about loss and hard-earned maturity, and intelligent about fools' paradises and the people who fabulate and live in them.
Young Robbie Coyle is growing up in a time and a place and a set of mental attitudes that are now almost unimaginable and unbearable in their nostalgia - the slight, complacent, Labour-left assumptions of a pre-Thatcher world. His shop-steward father has taught him well, even when 12-year-old Robbie does not entirely understand - there is an innocence to these early chapters, and it is not only Robbie who is an innocent. He explores the small Scottish town where he lives, starts to notice girls and has ambitions of being a cosmonaut - because obviously no son of his father would want to go into space with Americans...
Suddenly, reality shifts and Robbie is 19 and a young conscript in the space programme of a Soviet bloc Scotland. He simultaneously believes in the ideals that motivate his colleagues and is entirely aware of the negative side of what is a long way from utopia. He protects the Christian daughter of his landlady and tries to help a political prisoner forced into whoredom. When asked to be an informer, he temporises but betrays nobody. In the end, Robbie discovers that even the people he admires are betraying him: lofty motives can be as nightmarish as a base will to power.
The closing sections of the book are equally bleak. Robbie's father copes with the modern world and the onset of Alzheimer's, and an unnamed runaway makes deals with a mysterious stranger. The point about all of this is that Crumey makes it hang together both as plot and as emotional experience, even when strict logic crumbles and is lost.
Doug Johnstone. The Times (London). March 29, 2008, Saturday
Andrew Crumey claims that his six novels to date can be seen as a loosely connected series that can be read in any order. While that's perhaps stretching the truth slightly, there are undeniable threads running through all his books, an accumulation of ideas that culminates in this wonderfully rounded piece of work.
This book, undoubtedly his most ambitious and accomplished, can be seen as both a summary and extension of his previous novels. In the past, Crumey has delighted readers by inserting both highbrow scientific ideas and literary tricks and references into his work (he has a PhD in theoretical physics and was literary editor at a Scottish broadsheet for seven years). But Sputnik Caledonia is his first novel to affect the heart as strongly as the head.
In structure and scope, Sputnik Caledonia resembles Alasdair Gray's Lanark, that classic of Scottish literature. The opening section is a warm and moving portrait of Scottish small-town life, as we meet Robbie Coyle, a schoolboy who dreams of becoming an astronaut. Robbie and his parents, Joe and Anne, are wonderfully drawn characters, and this section is full of a gentle, authentic family humour that smacks of authenticity.
By the second section we have switched to an alternative Scotland, one that became communist after the Second World War, a familiar scenario in Crumey's work. A fully grown Robert Coyle is training at a secret military base to become a cosmonaut, his mission to fly out to an approaching cosmic entity, thought to be a black hole.
In the final section of the book we return to realistic Scotland, although we have shot forward in time, with Joe and Anne nearing old age and still grieving after a family tragedy years before. These different worlds that Crumey creates are subtly interlinked and the concept of parallel universes, which stems from Einstein's relativity theory governing black holes, is one that Crumey folds expertly into his narrative and plot.
While that might sound heavy, there are plenty of laughs along the way. In the middle part, the facile yet oppressive bureaucracy of communism is smartly parodied, while the realistic sections are brimming with the ludicrous, nonsensical conflict of family life.
Sputnik Caledonia isn't perfect - the central section could do with editing and the ending is slightly uneven in style - but you're nevertheless left with admiration for the vision and ambition of a very fine writer.
Euan Ferguson. The Observer (London). March 30, 2008
When it was still just a work in progress, this received the Northern Rock Writer's Award: £60,000, Britain's most luscious literary handout. Without much doubt, it was the best investment the doomed bank has made over the past few years.
Robbie Coyle grows up in Scotland in the early Seventies dreaming of flying to the stars. Not an astronaut, but a cosmonaut, for his father Joe's strong socialism (now looking as delightfully quaint as three television channels) colours much of the way the boy understands the world: the poisons of America, the hope of Russia. Joe's many monologues - crazed pieces of twisted internal logic, shot through with genuine scientific knowledge and a desire to teach rather than brainwash - are a nostalgic delight, caught just so; we warm rather than sneer.
Robbie, bright but odd, takes Einstein from the library in a bid to understand relativity. Crumey, a theoretical physicist as well as novelist - this is his sixth and undoubtedly his best - likes his parallel universes. So dear Robbie dies about a third of the way through. Or does he? There's a line mid-book when he asks one of his mentors: 'How do I know it's the truth?' The answer is: 'You don't. So, if you prefer, let's call it the next stage.' So, rather, Robbie goes somewhere else, sort of.
It is a dystopian parallel, a socialist Britain, and he's a soldier, picked for a space flight and trained in an institute, cut off from the rest of Scotland, the rest of the world, in the same way as happened with the real Russian intellectual institute, near Novosibirsk. This is where the reader's mild struggle becomes hugely rewarding.
Dystopia can be very badly done, simply echoes of other writers, but Crumey has created something that lingers long in the mind; more so, even, than the fictional town of Kenzie in which the book opens. The food, the layout, the threats and jealousy, the sex, the snobbery, the fear of the unspoken - all concrete, tastable, roundly imagined, deeply disturbing, no less so for the sudden and subtle, never crass, echoes, mixed and twisted, of characters from Robbie's early/real life. One of the strangest echoes, heard only after finishing the book, is the way the Seventies attitude (in Scotland at least) to women lingers on in the dystopia: they're either kindly, rather dumb matrons or super-bright if scary whores. At least, I hope it's a deliberate echo.
Robbie gets, sort of, to go to the stars. Not in any traditional sense, but through a complex series of psychic experiments to communicate, urgently, with a strange star hurtling towards Earth. It is only towards the end of this middle section you begin to realise, with a strange, late frisson, that the celestial body could be his parallel, early life. He does, at the end, make it back, physical years after he left Kenzie, but in two guises, older and younger, in time to meet his own father just before the latter's death.
Much is unexplained. The novel doesn't resolve itself. Nothing so simple. You are invited to use your own brain to grasp the links between Goethe and science, the circular thinking of Kant and the inward gravity of black holes, come out with your own answers, your own universe. There are echoes, here, of Alasdair Gray's Lanark : echoes, oddly enough, of Jonathan Coe's What a Carve Up! And it can be read in a number of ways: a quiet tirade about the exploitation of communism, an imagining of how a very Scottish kind of global communism might have tasted (cold, grey, just a wee bit kinder) or even a not unsympathetic attempt to understand the skewed thinking of British apologists.
In a way, none of it should work but it does, gloriously. There is some beautiful writing, and quiet fun. Along the way one gets to learn a surprising amount about the historical, near-poetic links between hard science and philosophy. At the end, however, two aspects linger; the deftly drawn parallel world, a real haunting triumph, and the very real, very human, quietly tragic tale, only properly there at the very end, of a good if misguided man, father Joe, given up on competing global philosophies but struggling with something far harder, harder than Einstein or Goethe: to cope, simply, with the loss of his wee boy.
Diana Hendry. The Spectator. April 5, 2008
Reading this novel I couldn't help but think of the opening lines of Miroslav Holub's poem, 'A Boy's Head' - 'In it there is a space ship/ and a project/ for doing away with piano lessons.' Not that Robbie Coyle, the hero of Crumey's novel and the son of a socialist/ communist father growing up in a small Scottish mining town in the Seventies, has to endure piano lessons, but he is consumed by a passion to become an astronaut, practising in his kitchen cupboard capsule and tuning in to the stars on the 'flight control panel' of the radiogram.
Sputnik Caledonia is Andrew Crumey's sixth novel for which he was awarded what must be the most embarrassing literary award going - the £60,000 Northern Rock Foundation Writer's Award. A physicist and former literary editor of Scotland on Sunday, Crumey's head is full of lost universes, parallel worlds and multiple realities - sexy physics you could call it with a literary/philosophical connection. In Pfitz (1995) it was Diderot, Borges in Mr Mee (2000) and Melville in Mobius Dick (2004).
In this novel it's Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship - a dismayingly large novel that I've just acquired from Amazon - with a dash of The Wizard of Oz.
The link to Goethe's story is that Robbie, like Wilhelm, wants to escape from his restricted world. Wilhelm's dream is to become an actor and playwright, Robbie's to become an astronaut. Sputnik Caledonia is a kind of post modern, sci-fi Bildungsroman or novel of education. Part I is a witty and poignant account of Robbie's childhood.
Here and in the final part of the book, Crumey writes brilliantly about being a boy and trying to understand everything from Einstein's Theory of Relativity to why giraffes have long necks and why girls are - well, girls.
The middle - and overlong - section of the book flings Robbie into an alternative reality, a life in the closed-off Installation where he's being prepared to 'become one with the Red Star' (a black hole) 'organically connected to the life of the cosmos.' Life in the Installation (a mirror image perhaps of Robbie's father's dream of a socialist revolution, or the imagination's version of the military base established in Robbie's home town) is full of gruesome tests and a loveless sexual education in a place where every woman's a whore.
This is a novel that keeps you on your toes as it sputniks you through its various realities. Characters in part one reappear in part two. The science teacher Mr Tulloch turns into the mad professor Kaupff; Moira, babysitting and demonstrating the lotus posture (and her sky-blue knickers) in part one, becomes the dominatrix Rosalind of the Installation (also in lotus posture though with pale blue knickers) while Dorothy, the girl who gives Robbie his first kiss, becomes - well either his Installation landlady or the whore he falls in love with or maybe Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Still with me?
It's a relief to get to something like real life again in part three and to find another boy - or maybe Every Boy, as he's mostly known as Kid. Kid himself thinks that 'everybody keeps being this new person, the same but different . . . in an infinite universe.' Possibly this and the idea derived from Goethe that everything is connected is meant to be a comforting philosophy, but it's not very sustaining.
A brio of a book though. One for the boys, big and little - and for those of us who wonder just what does go on inside a boy's head.
Edmund Gordon. New Statesman. April 7, 2008
Andrew Crumey is an unusual kind of writer. Despite his robust intellectual concerns, his style is so simple that it can seem naive. Politics, philosophy, social history and science are somehow absorbed into his novels without ever complicating his prose or drawing attention from his ingenious plots.
His new novel divides into three, startlingly different parts. The first, written as a nostalgic coming-of-age story, begins in 1970s Scotland, where ten-year-old Robbie Coyle dreams of becoming an astronaut. Or rather, a cosmonaut, as he'd "feel safer on a Russian mission" - his father, a committed socialist, has indoctrinated him against the capitalist west.
Part two takes place in an alternative communist Britain that has featured in two of Crumey's previous novels. Robbie is now a recruit at the Installation, a sinister research station dedicated to the space race. Part three takes us back to the realist landscape of the first section, but the atmosphere has soured. Robbie's parents are now older and unhappier, and Robbie himself is nowhere to be seen.
The balance between these contrasting worlds is handled deftly. A couple of minor flaws - the odd inconsistency in Robbie's character, for example - scarcely matter when there is so much else to admire.
Steven Poole. The Guardian. April 12, 2008
Science fiction makes you think of spaceships, magical technology, visionary futurism. Yet "science fiction" might also be a good name for a kind of fiction that contains no robots or galactic battles but simply engages with science on a deeper and more authoritative level than your average novelist who borrows a vague understanding of quantum mechanics as a little moondust to sprinkle over the story. Andrew Crumey has a PhD in theoretical physics, and his sixth novel answers in a way to both possible descriptions as "science fiction", concocting something dreamily strange out of what initially seems to be a resolutely naturalistic comedy of nostalgia.
Robbie dreams of being a spaceman. It is 1970s Scotland, and we are launched into the mind of a highly imaginative 12-year-old boy. His father, Mr Coyle, is a socialist, impressed by his union colleagues' visit to Leningrad (they found it "a very happy place"), so Robbie expects he will be a cosmonaut rather than an astronaut, and sets about learning Russian: "In Russian some letters are written back to front and others are completely made up." Mr Coyle also patiently explains to his son the fundamentals of science . To Robbie, the neighbours' daughter is "made of plastic from a faraway galaxy", and late at night, he listens to radio static, hoping to pick up a message from the stars.
Then, a quarter of the way through the book, something weird happens. Robbie, or Robert, is sudd enly 19. Scotland is part of the British Democratic Republic, a communist state allied with the Soviet Union, and Robbie is a conscript at a top-secret scientific installation. Crumey evokes brilliantly a hermetically sealed, paranoid micro-society, reminiscent in some ways of The Prisoner , though less pretty: there is a dour concentration on drab physical detail, contrasted with more rapt scientific exegesis, as when the melancholic Professor Kaupff constructs a highly suspenseful narrative from the problem of how to insulate a simple glass jar from the rest of the universe.
The installation is gearing up for an important project. There is a black hole approaching the solar system, which the scientists have christened the "Red Star". It might be some kind of transcendent intelligence, so they must try to communicate with it. Sexy superior Rosalind initiates Robert into the insane plan, which I wouldn't want to spoil here, except by saying that it's a bit like an extra-pornographic version of the celebrated South Park episode "Cartman Gets an Anal Probe".
In the meantime, we meet a memorably nasty secret policeman, and Robert manages to fall in love with a prostitute with a heart of gold as well as pledging marriage to his landlord's daughter; but just as we are wonder ing whether the lurid nature of this narrative indicates that it is all a dream enjoyed by the 12-year-old Robbie, it flickers out at the moment of crisis. For the book's final third, we are teleported back to a recognisable contemporary Scotland, where Mr Coyle, now a forgetful old man, argues with supermarket staff about the price of parsley, and where Robbie is either nowhere to be seen or in two places at once.
The novel is thus a puzzle: what is the relationship between the three narratives? Clues, in the form of rhyming half-memories between stories, or images dreamt and only later realised, are scattered throughout, lending a texture of hallucinogenic interconnectedness even as we notice the large contradictions. One particular change in a famous scientist's name might eventually lead us to think in terms of parallel universes, and the consolations of cosmology, but there is an open mystery still at the novel's close. In frustrating the reader's desire for epistemological satisfaction, Crumey perhaps risks a kind of weary so-whatism. Maybe it was all done with mirrors, and if so, who cares?
Each section of the book, however, is so precisely and warmly crafted (and often very funny) that one cannot help caring, and reflecting on the outcome of this experiment in fiction. Professor Kaupff laments at one point: "Go to any of our universities and you will find physicists who think they have no need of Shelley, or novelists who suppose they can live without Newton." Against this state of affairs, Sputnik Caledonia stands, in all its curious ambiguity, as a kind of manifesto.
Lucy Atkins. The Sunday Times (London). April 20, 2008
It is hard to encapsulate this hefty book without sounding unhinged. Crumey, a one-time theoretical physicist, explores parallel universes through the mind of 12-year-old Robbie, who wants to be an astronaut and sees the world accordingly - he feels "the airtight hatch of number 24 closing behind him" as he leaves a neighbour's house and drifts "back to the safety of his own craft". This is all manageably endearing until the coming-of-age plot explodes and Robbie is suddenly 19, Scotland is a communist state (part of the British Democratic Republic) and allied with the Soviet Union. Robbie - now Robert - is a recruit living under surveillance in a closed scientific community. For the final section it is back to contemporary Scotland and Robbie is either gone, or in two places at once. This is a supremely bold and expansive novel, and will particularly appeal to anyone with nerdish tendencies or a love of black holes.
Tom Cameron. The Sunday Telegraph. April 27, 2008 Sunday
Sputnik Caledonia takes its name from its young hero Robbie Coyle's dream of becoming the first Scot in space. The sixth novel by Andrew Crumey (a doctor in theoretical physics and former literary editor of Scotland on Sunday) is every bit as eclectic as that combination suggests. It is a Bildungsroman and although he alludes to his German forebears Crumey's take on the genre is highly distinctive. An ingenious blend of philosophy, physics and fantasy, the boundaries between fiction and reality are constantly blurred.
The novel is in three parts; the central section a rather dystopian fantasy, framed by two contrasting portraits of suburban Scotland. The first shows the early 1970s through the eyes of impressionable 12-year-old Robbie, while the third follows his parents in their present-day dotage. The time-frames are meticulously integrated, with countless details from one world recurring in another.
Alongside these postmodern leanings, Crumey displays an acute sense of voice. At first amusing, in showing Robbie's father's self-certain socialist phrases feeding into his son's fertile imagination ('It was a pity they'd probably be shot [in the Revolution]', thinks Robbie of the girls next door, 'all because their father thought himself a cut above'), the tone is melancholic in the novel's later stages as similar phrases come
to express an old man's bitter sadness at his family's break-up. Crumey's earlier novels were exhilaratingly idea rather than character-based, but Sputnik Caledonia is satisfyingly balanced between the two.
In the slightly over-long central section Crumey develops an extraordinary range of ideas, always with a light touch. Like portions of two of his previous novels, it is set in the British Democratic Republic, part of a parallel world in which Britain has turned communist.
This device enables Crumey to play with quantum theory's 'many worlds interpretation' and to speculate intriguingly on the workings of history. It also allows him to treat with irony his novel's compelling argument that art and science are inextricable - a professor of physics who voices these beliefs is arrested.
Sputnik Caledonia is immensely stimulating and entertaining, even for one averse to science fiction.
Jonathan Eyers. Metro. May 7, 2008
Growing up in 1970s Scotland, nine-year-old Robbie Coyle dreams of going into space, but with his dad Joe being such an uncompromising left-wing firebrand, Robbie knows hes never going to be an astronaut for the capitalist US. Andrew Crumeys sixth novel begins like a Scottish version of Roddy Doyles Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, detailing the moment when a young boy realises the limits of his parents infallibility. But then things take an abrupt turn for the bizarre, and Robbie is suddenly a soldier at the heart of a one-way mission into space. Whats more, this Scotland has been communist since 1946, and is a stark Orwellian dystopia. Much Kurt Vonnegut-style oddness ensues but the novel slowly develops an internal logic all of its own. Tackling subjects as diverse as theoretical physics, Marxist philosophy and Goethe, Crumey takes on some big themes but makes them accessible and entertaining. In a novel that is constantly reminding us how infinitesimal we are, it is also about how the tiniest decisions can change the world.
Jonathan Gibbs. The New Review. May 11, 2008 Scalar radiation is something that scientists mess with at their peril, risking critical ruptures in space-time and bringing parallel universes into dangerous conjunction. It's hazardous stuff for novelists, too. They risk producing novels that are just too damn confusing for their own good.
Andrew Crumey's latest, exhilarating piece of fictional confusion has plenty in common with its predecessors, notably the wonderfully muddled Mobius Dick. There's the attempt to apply experimental physics to literary character and plot, and the interest in alternative Scotlands - here, one which split from England after the Second World War, aligning itself instead with the Soviet Union.
Things start, though, in the "real" world of the Scottish lowlands in the early Seventies. Eleven-year-old Robbie Coyle is obsessed with space travel, only it's not an astronaut he wants to be when he grows up but - inspired by his militant Labour father - a cosmonaut. "Anyone wanting to be an American astronaut would wind up dropping napalm on children, according to Mr Coyle, while in Russia the only hard bit was learning the alphabet."
The first section runs along predictable enough lines, following Robbie's attempts to learn Einstein and Russian in preparation for adult life; his exploration of an abandoned military site, where he finds some strange green marbles; and his first kiss, in a cupboard at a church disco with a girl called Dora.
Things take a definite tumble for the weird, though, when Robbie begins receiving interstellar communication on his ancient radio set, and requests transportation. "Whoa!" says the distant voice on his radio. "You want to cross the inter-dimensional void?" And so it's across the inter-dimensional void we go. Robbie is now Robert Coyle, a 19-year-old volunteer at a secret (and rather familiar) military base in an independent Communist Scotland. His mission is to make psychic contact with the "Red Star", a black hole which is travelling at speed through the solar system and which represents for the Party top brass "the highest form of astrophysical evolution" and "a unique opportunity for socialist exploration".
Meanwhile, Robert is learning about the grim reality of life on the base. The loyal comrades must queue for food; moonlight in the Blue Cat brothel if they're attractive enough; and are destined never to leave the grounds of "The Installation" alive.
Of course, this all links back to Robbie's father, and in fact the novel is full of echoes and correspondences between its two sections, such that we are never sure if they truly are parallel universes of equal weight, or if The Installation is a product of Robbie's fevered mind.
The final section, which returns to "real life", 25 years on, might be thought to offer some answers, though for me, and despite much page-flicking and head-scratching, it didn't offer enough. Which is not to say that Sputnik Caledonia is not a stimulating read, full of political, philosophical and scientific thought experiments. A crossword puzzle can be stimulating even when you can't finish it. Even, perhaps, when it's designed to be unfinishable. n
Colin Steele. Canberra Times (Australia). June 28, 2008
Andrew Crumey is relatively unknown in Australia but he is, alongside Alasdair Gray and Iain Banks, one of the leading contemporary Scottish fiction writers. His debut novel, Music, in a Foreign Language (1995), won the Saltire First Book Award and was long- listed for the Guardian Fiction Prize. His fourth novel Mr Mee (2000) was long-listed for the Booker Prize and IMPAC Award. Mobius Dick (2004) was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. After Mobius Dick, Crumey received the Northern Rock Foundation Writers Award of 60,000, and this may have been the best investment the recently troubled British bank has made! Sputnik Caledonia is the end result of that grant.
Crumey has a doctorate in theoretical physics and is a former literary editor of Scotland on Sunday, an unusual mix of literature and science. He says in a recent interview for Asylum magazine, "I don't get sick of being labelled as a scientist-writer: it's better to be labelled as something than not to be known at all, even if the label can be a bit limiting. But I don't know if being a scientist made me a certain kind of writer, or if being a certain kind of person made me become first a scientist and then a writer."
Sputnik Caledonia is divided into three parts set in parallel universes. Crumey has said, in another interview, "Usually I let my books grow in a completely organic way, with no prior planning, but Sputnik Caledonia was a little more planned ... The problem is that you've got two stories in two different worlds that both need to be resolved somehow, and for a while I tried making it a four-part book. Then I remembered the good- old Hegelian pattern of thesis/antithesis/synthesis: what I needed was a finale that would somehow unite both the earlier movements."
In the first part, Robbie Coyle is a young Scottish boy growing up in Kenzie in the 1970s who dreams of becoming an astronaut. Robbie's father, Joe, is a dedicated hard-line socialist who longs for the workers' revolution and attacks Robbie's teachers as "soft" Labourites "never trust anyone who's only learned about life from reading books".
The central, perhaps overlong section in the context of the whole, is set in an alternative Scotland, the "Democratic Republic", a communist regime established after World War II. Robert Coyle, as he now is, has been selected as a cosmonaut and is part of a scientific research, the "Installation", a grey Orwellian repressed world of paranoia and surveillance.
The space mission aims to make contact with the "Red Star", a black hole approaching the solar system, but Robert's journey may ultimately be more psychical than physical. Perhaps all this is a dream of the younger Robbie? The question asked by Robert in the second section is relevant, "'How do I know it's the truth?' The answer is: 'You don't."' Crumey provides no easy answers. In the short last section, the narrative returns to present-day Scotland, with Joe now an old man confronting two images of Robbie/Robert and his own mortality. This is an extremely moving section as Joe, having seen the loss of the societal values he espoused, struggles to come to terms with the fate of his son.
Kenzie echoes The Wizard of Oz in several ways and Crumey also deliberately acknowledges the influence of Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, whose apprentice also strives to find his identity.
Sputnik Caledonia is a contemporary Bildungsroman of considerable complexity and erudition, which is both uplifting and sobering at the same time, but then the nature of time and relationships are at its core.
Cameron Woodhead. The Age (Melbourne, Australia). June 28, 2008
There aren't many novelists with a PhD in theoretical physics - Andrew Crumey is one of them. It's a branch of science that is in some ways stranger than fiction, and in Sputnik Caledonia, Crumey bends his narrative to mirror some of the more exotic theories of cosmology. Robbie Coyle is an 11-year-old with an overactive imagination. He dreams of becoming an astronaut, or more particularly a cosmonaut: setting out to learn Russian, training for space conditions under the kitchen sink. Suddenly, the story erupts into a wild sci-fi fantasy. Robbie is 19, drafted into a cloistered (and communist) scientific community charged with protecting the world from a black hole. Sputnik Caledonia is a weird novel that works in a number of genres - from nostalgic coming of age tale to paranoid dystopia. Each part stands well enough on its own, though together they don't particularly gel (not unless you're willing to go with the parallel universe theory, anyway).
Jonathan Coe. The Guardian "Best books of 2008". November 29, 2008
Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture (Faber) deserved all the attention it got, and more. Much has been written about the beauty of Barry's prose, but what really impressed me about this novel was its exquisite plotting, the way it threw a brilliantly calculated curve ball at the reader in its closing pages, and then finished with a satisfying click. I also loved Andrew Crumey's Sputnik Caledonia (Picador), the most impressive achievement yet from a still undervalued writer: in its combination of dystopian science fiction with warm but unsentimental childhood memoir, it struck me as being firmly in the tradition of - and worthy of comparison with - Alasdair Gray's Lanark . Talking of Gray, he was lucky this year to find a first-rate biographer in Rodge Glass, whose Alasdair Gray: A Secretary's Biography (Bloomsbury) is a thorough, loving portrait of the artist as quirky genius.