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The Accord
Keith Brooke
Solaris, 448 pages

The Accord
Keith Brooke
Keith Brooke's first novel appeared in 1990, since when he has published four more adult novels, two collections, and over 60 short stories. Since 1997 he has run the web-based SF, fantasy and horror showcase Infinity Plus (, featuring the work of around 100 top genre authors, including Michael Moorcock, Stephen Baxter, Connie Willis, Gene Wolfe, Vonda McIntyre and Jack Vance. His previous novel, Genetopia, was published by Pyr in February 2006. Writing as Nick Gifford, his teen fiction is published by Puffin, with one novel optioned by Little Bird.

Keith Brooke Website
ISFDB Bibliography: Keith Brooke
Nick Gifford Website
SF Site Review: Genetopia
SF Site Excerpt: Genetopia
SF Site Interview: Keith Brooke
SF Site Review: Infinity Plus One
SF Site Review: Parallax View

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Hebblethwaite

Do you ever find that getting into the frame of mind to read science fiction becomes second nature? That you don't think about the possibility of needing to approach it differently to fully appreciate it, because switching approaches has become natural to you? These thoughts were brought to my mind by reading The Accord, because it's a book that really foregrounds that sense of difference.

Noah Barakh is "the man who built heaven," the architect of the Accord -- a vast virtual realm, as good as the real thing, based on and sustained by a consensus (or accord) of conscious realities. People can now have copies of themselves archived, to be uploaded to the Accord when they die (this gives rise to my favourite line of the whole book: "if you are to enter heaven then first you must be saved"). And if someone dies in the Accord, they'll be reborn there, again and again. It's as close to an "afterlife" as humans could build.

But Noah has found another use for his invention. Though married himself, Noah's real romantic thoughts are for Electee Priscilla, the wife of Elector Jack Burnham. She won't countenance an affair in the real world; but Noah can build a reality in the pre-consensus Accord where he can be with Priscilla -- and if the version of her in that reality won't play along, he can just try again until he finds one that will.

It's all going well for Noah until Jack Burnham finds his letters to Priscilla, and the Elector kills his wife in a fit of rage. Noah commits suicide to join her; but she is lost to him when the Accord reaches consensus, and all the disparate reality-shards he has created integrate. Eventually, to Noah's delight, she is reborn in the new Accord -- but there's a catch: the "you" which comes into the Accord is not who you were at the moment of death, but the person you were when you were last archived, however long ago that was. The Priscilla that Noah meets now is younger, and doesn't remember loving him. This time he can't just make a new reality, so can Noah bring Priscilla round the old-fashioned way?

There are complications, of course. For one thing, there's the question of whether conventional networks have the capacity to keep the Accord running. Noah has people working on that, trying to embed the Accord in reality itself at a quantum level. That's easy to deal with, though, compared to Jack Burnham, who's out for revenge and won't be satisfied until he has eradicated Noah completely, from all realities. Noah stays one step ahead for a while: he built the Accord around himself, and can leave multiple "instances" of himself in different parts of it. Also, the technology in this future allows people to "ride" others' bodies; but Noah takes it one step further, because he can do so from the Accord, allowing him to operate in both the virtual and the real world. These things give Noah and edge over Burnham, but the Elector is determined, and has resources of his own. As time goes on, he gains in power within the Accord (which has itself been changing), and chases after Priscilla and Noah, even into the far future.

Despite its length, I think that's quite a concise summary, so you get an idea of how complex The Accord is! But I didn't expect the synopsis to be so long, and I think that shows what a superlative guide Keith Brooke is, that all the complexity never feels overwhelming. Take the prose as an example: Brooke switches constantly between third- and first-person viewpoints (even first-person plural for a character who is an amalgamation of personalities), and past and present tenses (depending on whether a scene is taking place in the real or the virtual world). Sure, it's hard work to begin with; but before long, I more or less stopped noticing -- it ceases to be an obstacle, and becomes a signpost.

As well as the shifts in prose, we have to make sense of multiple versions of characters, who don't necessarily have the same knowledge or personality each time we see them. This is more difficult to deal with, and ultimately proved too difficult for me. But, to balance things out, Brooke keeps up the momentum of his story, such that it doesn't matter if you're not sure exactly which instance of a character you're reading about at a given moment, because you know where you are within the story as a whole. Brooke also controls the pace of the novel very well, so that when it races off into the future for the final act, the transition doesn't feel jarring, just a natural extension of the story.

If you like ideas to chew over in your SF, you'll find that Brooke provides a surfeit in The Accord. What is it to be unfaithful when affairs can be conducted entirely in a virtual world that looks and feels just like the real one? What would it be like to have seventeen different versions of yourself all clamouring for attention? If a murder is committed by a composite entity formed in large part from your personality, can you yourself be held responsible for the deed, or at least part of it? What's really striking, though, is the way that Brooke drops such ideas in for us to think about, without necessarily exploring them in detail -- when they could each provide enough material in themselves for a whole novel. He does a similar thing with the background of his fictional future: the world of The Accord is beset with catastrophes, but it's all depicted "at arm's length" -- as a reader, the virtual Accord seems more real as a place than does the actual reality. It's not that Brooke treats all these issues as insignificant, but that he lets them speak for themselves whilst he tells his story.

And the story Brooke tells is of the relationship between Noah, Priscilla and Burnham (which is not so much a triangle as some kind of multi-dimensional shape). This is where it gets tricky, because now we're into talking about the characterization, and it's here that I feel The Accord most subverts "conventional wisdom". Some of the characters come across as quite flat, in the sense that they seem able to be summed up in single sentences: Elector Burnham's assistant Lucy Chang is coldly efficient; programmer Chuckboy Lee is an unspeakably nasty piece of work; Burnham himself is implacably ruthless; Priscilla is... well, I didn't gain much of an impression of her at all, really. Only Noah seems to have any real depth to him: although the "good guy", he can be quite unlikeable -- for example, his willingness to rebuild realities in the pre-consensus Accord, just to find a version of Priscilla that suits him, makes him seem to be only out for himself. But it's not as simple as that, because we do see Noah's love for Priscilla -- and, for much of the novel, his personality is largely inscrutable.

Even if the characterization is a bit flat (and what does the concept mean when there are multiple, differing, versions of some of the characters?), it doesn't matter too much in the end, because what really impresses about The Accord is the sum total of what Brooke has created. I can say the same about the fact that characters are constantly being reborn, and about the ending with its whiff of deus ex machina about it: the whole imaginative edifice has more than enough strength to make up for the book's individual weak points.

That brings me back to what I said at the beginning about difference. Here we have a novel where characterization is a matter of adding together personalities (if, indeed, it's a useful concept at all); where the plot proceeds at a steady pace throughout, until the end, when it runs ahead hundreds of years; a novel that combines elements of love story, thriller, and work of ideas, yet gains its impact from being more than the sum of these. And it all works. It works brilliantly. In The Accord, Keith Brooke has created a dazzling work of the imagination.

Copyright © 2009 David Hebblethwaite

David lives somewhere in England, where he reads a lot of books and occasionally does other things. He has published over a hundred reviews in various venues; you can find links to them all, and more besides, at his blog, Follow the Thread.

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