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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Christine Brooke-Rose

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To purchase Xorandor/Verbivore

Title: Xorandor
Author: Christine Brooke-Rose
Genre: Novel
Written: 1986
Length: 211 pages
Availability: in Xorandor/Verbivore - US
in Xorandor/Verbivore - UK
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Our Assessment:

B+ : charmingly bizarre; often impressive

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 18/7/1986 Sylvia Clayton
The LA Times . 11/6/1986 Richard Eder
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/8/1986 Thomas M. Disch
Sunday Times . 10/8/1986 Elisabeth Anderson
TLS . 11/7/1986 Brian Morton

  From the Reviews:
  • "The whole story of the twins' encounter with what seems like a megacomputer is most ingeniously told in dialogue" - Sylvia Clayton, Daily Telegraph

  • "This is quite a bit of plot, and there is quite a lot more. Brooke-Rose is not very good at handling it (.....) The use of bits of computer language is a condiment that provides only mild interest and soon wears out. (...) Essentially, Xorandor is a meditation disguised as a novel, enlivened by wit and flattened by contrivance. It somewhat resembles such proto-fictional works as Erewhon or the geometrical fantasy, Flatland." - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Readers with some knowledge of programming will undoubtedly derive an extra measure of pleasure from Xorandor, but computer literacy is by no means required. Basic is Greek to me, but I never felt taken out of my depth, never wanted to skim, never was bored. Miss Brooke-Rose's verbal pyrotechnics are deployed in the interest of heightening and enriching her story, which is always riveting. (...) The story is as old as the hills, and simple as ABC. (...) Christine Brooke-Rose, however, maintains that delicate balance between fertility of invention and strict economy of means that is the science fictional equivalent of "elegance" in mathematics." - Thomas M. Disch, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Xorandor is definitely only for the computer-obsessed. (...) (T)he whole narrative is littered with computer-speak and jargon, so for the likes of me, the plot is largely incomprehensible." - Elisabeth Anderson, Sunday Times

  • "It is Enid Blyton who, improbably (and satirically updated), lurks behind the language and situations of Xorandor, all exclamation marks, kindly postmistresses and wicked foreigners. (...) Preposterous as much of the story and language is, it makes perfect sense within the shared narrative consciousness of the two children, and it keeps the reader in a state of constantly beguiling uncertainty." - Brian Morton, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Presumably it need not be said that a novel by Christine Brooke-Rose is unusual -- they all are, in one way or (usually) another -- and certainly Xorandor does not surprise or disappoint on this count. Part of the fun of her work in general -- and this one in particular -- is the difficulty readers have in placing and defining her work, as evinced here by the reviews of this book, from the oblivious Daily Telegraph's, where it is blithely included in a round-up review of YA/kids' books (presumably because of its two young narrators) to Thomas M. Disch's enthusiastic reaction in The New York Times Book Review, where he expresses bafflement about Brooke-Rose's "turgid" Amalgamemnon but argues, on the basis of Xorandor, that she: "is a born science fiction writer"
       Brooke-Rose is fascinated by language and its role in story-telling; many of her experiments in fiction stretch the bounds of language. It's hardly surprising that she would eventually get around to incorporating computer code into a fiction, and for a novel published in 1986, when word processing and personal computers were just beginning to be more widely used, it engages remarkably well with the implications. Equally important, she manages to tell a good story on these foundations.
       Xorandor is essentially a novel in dialogue, precocious twins Isabel Paula Kate ('Zab') and John Ivor Paul ('Jip') trying to tell their story. Part of that is trying to figure out just how to tell it: "How did the bards manage ?" they wonder, finding: "it seems harder to tell a story, even our own, than to make up the most complex program". The dialogue-approach -- a back and forth, rather than just a single-voiced narration -- helps, not least because it suggests (re)action rather than a static/fixed account, and the reader is made privy to some of what goes into shaping it (as the kids argue about and discuss that). Computer programs play a significant role in the text, and new inputs repeatedly lead to new outputs.
       Significantly, much of what the children relate is also not information conveyed to or witnessed by them in person, but rather takes the form of transcriptions of recordings: the information is still essentially first-hand -- more dialogue -- but mediated. Throughout, there's an effort to present material directly (indeed, verbatim) -- yet readers are constantly also reminded that even at its most documentary this remains story, defined and determined also very much by its telling (most of which is in the hands of these precocious young kids). So too, for example, the kids note, once they are cut off from a direct connection to events: "in fact we weren't dipping into what people thought, only into what they said" -- which always leaves a great deal of room for interpretation.
       John Manning, Zab and Jip's father, runs a secret nuclear facility near the village of Carn Tregean, near Cornwall. By the time they begin their account, the kids have been sent away (exiled) to Germany, after something went badly wrong; their story is an account of how it got to that point -- even as they have to admit:

     No, Jip, you see, we're characters too, and we've been dropped from the story we're telling. FIFO, you said once, First In, First Out. We're FIFO-storytellers, instead of FILO. How can we go on telling it, we don't know what's happening.
     We can be readers of it, like everyone else. Zab.
       At their old school they: "were called whizz-kids, cos we're so good in computer class", and things started when they were using their Poccom 2 pocket computer. In those pre-(commercial/private-)internet days they weren't connected to anything (not even a terminal), yet found: "Someone or something was interrupting our program with an irrelevant message". They make contact -- with a large stone they've been sitting on, which turns out to be a sentient being, an apparently silicon-based life-form. Communication is established, and the rock, which they eventually call 'Xorandor' ('xor and or', in case you missed the computing reference) begins to learn -- as, yes, much of Xorandor is an exploration of artificial intelligence (AI) in theory and practice.
       There are questions as to the rock's origins, identity, nature, and age -- a Mars rock ? homegrown intelligence ? -- and of course the proximity to the nuclear waste site plays a role in its suddenly more prominent role, as it apparently feeds on some of the radiation. A "rebel offspring" (also described as a 'syntax error'), presenting itself (in a nice classical touch showing just what these sentient beings can pick up of local color and culture) as Lady Macbeth, is at the root of the problems that arise.
       Yes, Xorandor is also a basic science fiction adventure, complete with alien life forms threatening mankind (which itself has contributed to the nasty situation it finds itself in). Far-fetched though much of the science is, Brooke-Rose maintains a thoroughly scientific approach throughout:
Dad: But of course sir ! I puzzled and puzzled over this. Yes, that's it.
Big: No, Manning, nothing is it, till we've checked and rechecked.
       Brooke-Rose's presentation of AI and machine-learning (as it were) -- and how the various characters approach trying to understand this novel life-form --, impresses, as does how she utilizes issues of computer code and communication for her purposes (of exploring the possibilities and limits of language, and of fiction), all the way to the twins finding themselves in a new and different linguistic environment when they start to go to school in Germany. The interpersonal is well-handled too, from the affair the twins' father is having to the relationship the children have with the sentient being (and each other).
       Xorandor is distinctly and appealingly odd, fiction that doesn't come close to neatly fitting any category, from 'science fiction' to 'experimental', even as it is all that and more in spades. It holds up well, too, even the kids' speech, filled with slangy abbreviations and neologisms -- if not quite authentic, Brooke-Rose at least makes it sound plausible. And the computing, though naturally largely on a fairly basic level, shows her thoughtful engagement with the material.
       Xorandor remains a welcome, strange piece of fiction -- in no small part because of Brooke-Rose's underlying gentle humor, as she doesn't take herself (or let her characters take themselves) or her story too dourly-seriously -- even decades after its original publication.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 May 2016

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Xorandor: Reviews: Christine Brooke-Rose: Other books by Christine Brooke-Rose under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Christine Brooke-Rose lived 1923 to 2012.

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