Andrew Crumey’s 2008 novel Sputnik Caledonia is a strange book, divided into three parts, each offering a different version of 20th century Scotland. In the first section, set in the 1970s, we meet Robbie Coyle, a little boy who dreams of becoming Scotland’s first cosmonaut. (He wants to be a cosmonaut rather than an astronaut because of his father’s pro-Soviet views.) This section reads like a standard boyhood story, with hints of something different around the edges. For example, there are the strange radio broadcasts from the Red Star and the weird marbles Robbie finds in the new military installation.
The second, and longest, section is set about 10 years later in a Communist version of Scotland. Robbie, now 19, has been selected to serve in a secret mission to contact a mysterious object in space. His training requires him to live on a military base that looks like an ordinary town, but everyone is carefully monitored and hardly anyone is ever allowed to leave.
The final section jumps forward again in time and focuses on Robbie’s parents, now older and missing their lost son.
So that’s the structure, but how these sections relate to each other is for the reader to decide. Are these alternate universes? Results of time travel? Different worlds altogether? Robbie’s delusions? Crumey leaves the options open, and I find that I don’t care that much which is true, although when I got to the third section I was impressed at how various possibilities were weaved into the story.
What I am interested largely involves the second section and my unease at the view of women in that world. With one notable exception, the women of the installation have virtually no power. Most are either housewives or part-time prostitutes whose day jobs don’t provide enough income for warm gloves or meat to eat. Their night jobs don’t provide enough either, but generous clients might. The women’s only hope of escape from poverty is marriage, and their hope is a marriage with someone with a high enough position to be able to move away from the base and be free. So, in one way or another, sex is these women’s only way to obtain even a small measure of comfort.
Robbie, to his credit, is disturbed at these women’s situation. He wants to help even when he doesn’t necessarily like the individual women caught up in this system. Yet I’m unsettled by the way Crumey handled this aspect of the story, and I’m struggling to put my finger on the reason.
Part of the problem is that the story still centers on Robbie’s feelings about the situation. The women, objectified by their society, are also little more than objects in the story. Their narrative purpose is to show Robbie the society is sick. (And, in truth, the treatment of women can be a marker of societal health.) But this is Robbie’s story. It isn’t Dora’s story or Miriam’s story or Rosalind’s story. The story is not about them but about Robbie’s reaction to them, which is fine, although I wanted more of their stories.
Rosalind, by the way, is the one woman who appears to have power in this world, and the depiction of her was another piece of my unease. Because Rosalind, free from needing to use sex to survive, uses it as a tool to manipulate the men in training. The men are helpless in the face of her beauty, and she uses their helplessness to keep them off-kilter. In fact, the men’s state of arousal proves to be key to the success of the program, and some of the means used to keep them aroused amounts to assault, with Rosalind controlling the process.
I’m still trying wrap my mind around what Crumey was up to here. Is he attempting to show that women can be a cruel as men? Or that men must become victims to understand women’s victimization? Or is Rosalind herself a victim, using the only power that she has to stay at the top? Whatever Crumey’s purpose, it makes some unpleasant reading.
Unpleasant, however, doesn’t necessarily mean bad. Unpleasant stories unsettle us, and being unsettled causes us to seek change. Robbie sought escape for himself and others because he was unsettled by others’ stories. So I can’t say this book is bad because it’s disturbing. But it was uncomfortable. Uncomfortable, perhaps, in a good way.