The final chapters of Alexandria progress with an immense eschatological momentum that draws together both machine and man. In this highly inventive trilogy, spanning 2,000 years, Paul Kingsnorth traces a line between the past and future of humanity, the tremendous upheaval we have experienced, and that which may yet be to come.
In his summoning of our era’s most urgent themes – environmental collapse, the rise of artificial intelligence, the destructive conflict between the individual and the collective – Kingsnorth is clearly striving for contemporary relevance. Yet the way these themes are presented seems disappointingly old-fashioned. The first third of the novel has a quality of mystery that draws the reader under its spell; sadly, Kingsnorth is not content to let his mysteries speak for themselves. The bulk of the book is taken up with long and preachy infodumps of the kind familiar from the more heavy-handed variety of 1950s science fiction novel.
‘Challenging stuff,’ my wife remarked, having alighted on the page of Paul Kingsnorth’s new novel in which a character named el supplies several stream-of-consciousness paragraphs about a ritual dance featuring ‘big Birds runnin round Pole and fyr and mam and mother and all womyn and these big things all hummin’. Dystopian, or by the time you reach the final paragraph, maybe only utopian, Alexandria turns out to be set in the East Anglian fens a millennium or so in the future. Here lurk the last tattered remnants of a self-sequestered religious cult, their numbers steadily depleted by marauding ‘stalkers’, their destiny ever more uncertain.
For all its mythic expansiveness, Alexandria is a claustrophobic novel. Its view of humanity as fatally hubristic and pathologically self-sabotaging is without consolation. Where does this leave the reader? Kingsnorth has one solution: in the final pages the novel’s many religious allusions coalesce in an affirmation of the Christian faith as the now-depleted Nitrians stand bathed in divine light. It’s an endnote of hope, but as the culmination of Kingsnorth’s thoughts on how we might imaginatively respond to the apocalypse, it has a taste of “it was all a dream” style fudge.
If there is a nagging doubt about Alexandria it is with the gender essentialism that underpins the book — man is fire, woman is water, woman is seductress, man is seduced: each has their fixed place in the world. But as a story about human failure and enduring belief, it succeeds. Kingsnorth’s novel is both of time and out of time, and it posits some of the most urgent questions of this millennium: where are we going, and what will become of us.