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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, July 04, 2004

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. New York: Viking, 2002. ISBN: 0-670-03064-3

I'm not sure why my library hasn't classified this book as science fiction, as it certainly meets just about any definition of the genre you'd care to suggest. Some of the classic sci-fi themes featured in the book include:

Alternate reality: In this book, set in Great Britain, circa 1985, people fly in dirigibles, not jet planes; Great Britain has been involved for over 100 years in the Crimean War, still fighting against Imperial Russia—ruled by Czar Romanov Alexie IV—while The People's Republic of Wales exists on British soil.

Time travel: Our heroine's father is a member of the ChronoGuard who's gone renegade, "fighting a one-man war against the bureaucrats within the Office for Special Temporal Stability."

Wacky inventions: Our heroine's uncle, the typical mad inventor type, has invented what he calls a Prose Portal, which allows a person to step into the reality of any literary work. His wife gets stranded in Wordsworth's poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," and one of the main plot lines of the story involves traveling into the world of Jane Eyre, hence the book's title.

Demonic powers: While this theme is more typical of fantasy than sci-fi, the book contains elements of both genres: The super-villain of the story is apparently at least partly demon by birth, and possesses seemingly supernatural powers.

Our heroine, whose unlikely name is Thursday Next, is an agent of the Literary Detective Division of the Special Operations Network (LiteraSpec for short), whose primary law enforcement tasks involve copyright infringements, fake first editions and the like. In this alternate version of England, literature seems to hold the position in people's hearts and minds that sports or rock music have in our world.

The main plot involves the villain stealing the original manuscript of Jane Eyre, and threatening to erase portions of it, thus immutably altering every existing subsequent edition, and ruining the work for its innumerable and highly loyal fans. Preventing this catastrophe is the goal of our heroine. In the process, she just incidentally manages to change the ending of the work, regarded as unsuitable by almost everyone in her reality (Jane doesn't marry Mr. Rochester, but instead, goes off to India with her cousin, St. John Rivers), to the version we all know and love today.

There's lots more, of course, and the book is quite a page turner in its own right, as bizarre and twisted as its reality may seem to us. Imagine a Shakespearean theatre in which the players are selected from the audience (all of whom know the work by heart) each night, and in which the audience calls out standardized prompting lines—"WHEN is the hour of our discontent?" Actor: "NOW is the hour of our discontent" and so forth—just like at a cult showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Highly recommended, especially for anyone who might like wacky, literary, detective/crime/police procedural type fiction with a zany twist. And if you like The Eyre Affair, you'll be pleased to know that there is at least one follow-on, Lost in a Good Book.

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