Conquest by Nina Allan
Reviewed by Nick Hubble
On a panel, ‘Thirty-four Years, and An Interim Survey’, at this year’s Eastercon, Nina Allan said that, while she used to consider herself as belonging to the post-New-Wave alongside writers such as M. John Harrison, since living in Scotland she has found herself moving beyond that British anti-novel tradition and writing in a more Scottish speculative style. This is not entirely surprising as her work often displays a strong sense of place. For example, The Race, first published back in 2014, was almost uncanny in its evocation of a bleached-out south-coast Englishness (sections of the novel being set in Hastings), whereas the Scottish-set The Good Neighbours (2021) feels simultaneously softer-edged but with a deeper incursion into fantasy. While the setting of Conquest moves between England, Scotland and France, allowing it to combine perspectives, it feels by the end that reality has been totally subsumed within the fantastic. I would be tempted to describe it as a changeling story, if it wasn’t so obviously also an alien invasion novel, but perhaps it might be both.
The novel begins with Frank Landau thinking about the Goldberg Variations, of which he owns fourteen different recordings. He ponders how they become more complex and charged as they go on, how they have become imprinted in his brain like a blueprint, and whether Bach is actually the trigger for an activation code implanted within him. At this point, I considered playing it continuously while reading the novel, but after one listen, I thought better of that idea. Sometimes it is advisable not to follow the call of the music even if you can hear it.* Frank disappears, of course. His girlfriend, Rachel, who, in contrast to Frank, is from ‘the good estate’ in town, eventually hires a private detective, Robin, to try and track him down. As Robin looks into the case, she begins to find unexpected parallels between herself and Frank, including her own growing attraction to Rachel.
In a recent Guardian article on the ‘Top 10 strangest alien invasion novels’, Allan explains how in Conquest she ‘wanted to reveal the theme of alien invasion as infinitely flexible, adapting itself to subtle, ambiguous stories in which the divide between human and alien is not always clear cut.’ This is an interesting comment because on the face of it, although much of Conquest is pretty weird, not to mention queer in both senses of the word, the distinction between humans and aliens—as opposed to that between fantasy and reality—appears to be fairly clear cut even in the various texts within the text. The largest of these is a 50-page extract from an obscure 1950s American novel, The Tower by John C. Sylvester, which has significance in terms of the conspiracy theory that Frank is caught up in concerning the war against the aliens but is also just an absolute treat to read in itself. The same is true of the other found texts that crop up in Conquest, including a concert review which, building on the layers already inserted into the novel, transported me to a place from where I could no longer distinguish between fact and fiction. It’s almost as though Allan is deliberately trying to ‘jailbreak’ her readers free of consensus reality.
Towards the end of the novel, a passing reference to the 2016 EU referendum describes it as ‘a fracturing of time, the dawn of a new era’. Conquest is not about Brexit, nor is it a realist state-of-the-nation novel, and yet somehow it captures the feeling of the epochal social shift that we have experienced in recent years. We have been conquered, even if it is not entirely clear by who or what. This uncertainty is unmercifully held open for us even to the end of the novel.
*I’m lying. The music is inside me now and I understand the true meaning of Conquest. I wrote this review on the train to Scotland.