THREE EIGHT ONE by Aliya Whiteley (BOOK REVIEW)
“Are these the kinds of decisions people from the Age of Riches had to make all the time? To abandon what’s best for the world and concentrate only on what makes for a better person, as if the two are divisible?
Are the two divisible?”
Long-time readers will know that Aliya Whiteley is one of my favourite authors, a unique voice in modern speculative fiction who does something different with every book she writes. Three Eight One (2024) sees her continue to explore the outer limits of what genre fiction can do whilst expanding her artistry once again. Whiteley’s work frequently blends genres and experiments with form, and her new novel may be her most audacious and successful attempt at both of these yet. Three Eight One is a shifting puzzle box of a novel. A Fantasy novel written in the present day being commented on by a character living in our future, it makes a mockery of genre boundaries and asks profound questions about how our engagement with fictional texts shape our understanding of our own history and can change the direction of our lives. A complex and confounding text, it is nevertheless a joy to read thanks to Whiteley’s beautiful prose and elegant drawing of characters. It is a book that I am certain that I have not fully grasped everything it is trying to say, as much as I am certain that I will read it again and on subsequent rereads understand a little bit more.
Three Eight One is a novel about two women who never meet, yet one of them influences the life of the other profoundly. The bulk of the novel is taken up by The Dance of the Horned Road, a curious Fantasy novel released on the internet by an unknown author on 23rd July, 2024 in the world of the book. The novel tells the story of Fairly, a girl who leaves the village she has lived in all her life in order to go on a quest. The Dance of the Horned Road is bookended by an introduction and conclusion, and extensively footnoted, by Rowena Savalas, a seventeen-year-old girl living in 2314. Rowena lives in a world radically different from ours, an Age of Curation that was born into being by the Magnaman method, a technique that has allowed humanity to make sense out of the huge amount of data produced by the Age of Riches, which is our time. Humans live alongside “streaming existence”, the vast quantity of digitized data which is now joined by uploaded consciousnesses. Rowena is unsure of her direction in life, but thinks she might like to be a historian, and take part in her era’s combing through of documents from the Age of Riches in search of meaning, hence her project to annotate The Dance of the Horned Road. Unfortunately for Rowena, The Dance of the Horned Road is a thoroughly eccentric text that defies easy interpretation at every level. The number 381 crops up regularly in the text, with each section being precisely 381 words long. Fairly’s quest, which involves traveling across her world to press the button on every Chain Device in the land, which alters her perspective, marked by changes in the text between first, second and third person. She is relentlessly pursued by a malevolent figure known as the Breathing Man, and assisted by the mysterious cha, which alternate between being a currency, a charismatic pig-like animal that may or may not be sentient, and a secret society of shadowy figures who wear novelty costumes of the animal. As Rowena struggles to make sense of Fairly’s journey, she nevertheless becomes inspired by her story to challenge the preconceptions of her age about how she should lead her life.
Three Eight One challenges the reader’s preconceptions of how we read and make sense of texts, by showing how this process breaks down between Rowena and whoever the original author of The Dance of the Horned Road is. While the Magnaman method appears to have helped humanity in separating fact from fiction and extracting the signal from the disorienting noise of the digital world, it falls down when it’s used to assess something as surreal and playful as The Dance of the Horned Road. We know from our perspective which conclusions Rowena is drawing about our world from the novel are spurious, but that’s only to be expected given the hundreds of years between the text’s writing and Rowena’s reading, not to mention the huge social and political changes in how people live their lives in this future. This in turn makes us think about the baggage we bring with us when we read texts that are hundreds of years old, or indeed when we try to imagine texts that represent imaginary futures. It’s not a stretch to extrapolate this to how we engage with any text – how can any of us tell that the level of subconscious imagery that provides so much of the thematic architecture of fiction but also nonfictional arguments, are something that we share completely with the person who wrote the text?
Three Eight One is a playful text, and makes the argument for the speculative and the fantastic as the genres of play. Fairly’s quest unfolds like a puzzle, but one in which the protagonist frequently makes surprising or unexpected choices. Does Fairly’s quest ever truly end? Whiteley leads us deftly through a series of Philip K. Dickian revelations, in which Fairly’s conceptions about her quest, her world and her place in it are thoroughly discombobulated. But it is this precise quality, The Dance of the Horned Road’s exploration of confusion and successive attempts to construct meaning in a frustratingly unreadable world, that inspires Rowena to lead a life radically different to what is expected of her from her society. Perhaps one of the most important things fiction can do is open up a space where we can be confused, where we can fail to understand and grapple with how our expectations of the world don’t match our lived experience. Three Eight One exists in this space, expertly showing how speculative fiction can step in and help us explore these ambiguities of existence. I can’t wait to reread it and grapple with it again, and I can’t wait to see what on Earth Whiteley has in store for us next.
Three Eight One is available now. You can order your copy on Bookshop.org