Book Review : A Rocky Meditation Dressed as a Novel

Times Book Critic

Xorandor by Christine Brooke-Rose (Carcanet: $15.95)

The moral protagonist and the most interesting character in Christine Brooke-Rose’s novel, a mixture of philosophy, science fiction and linguistic playfulness, is a rock.

Its name is Xorandor, it measures two feet long, and it is lodged in a corner of Cornwall haunted by Arthurian ghosts from the past and contaminated by a nuclear waste dump in the present. The two precocious children of the dump’s director, who are nicknamed Jip and Zab, discover Xorandor one day when they are out playing with their portable computer.

“Get off my back!” flashes onto their screen. They have been sitting, it turns out, on Xorandor. Its decision to speak out--later, it will also employ a high, metallic voice--is not a caprice. After all, people and pigs have been sitting on it for thousands of years. But now it has a message to be conveyed through Jip and Zab to the human race at large.


A touch of vanity is involved as well. Xorandor is a pure mineral intelligence, one of a clan of super-silicons scattered around the world. But what intelligence can ever be quite pure--uncontaminated, that is, by the urge to speak out? Xorandor’s imprudence turns out to be disastrous in one way, and in another, beneficial. In any event, it allows Brooke-Rose to get on with her purposes.

Purpose Gradually Emerges

Just what Xorandor and its rocky fellows are, and are about, becomes clear only gradually. Everything is related through Jip and Zab, who sometimes speak in their own voices, lightly inflected by computerese. Other times they reproduce tapes of a more highly computerized dialogue with their rock. Besides, the rock is not always truthful.

To sum up, these sentient stones have evolved over millennia into a form of life. Their food has always been supplied by natural radioactivity, but now that humans are manufacturing it, the diet has been vastly enriched. Xorandor and his own children--these rocks reproduce--have been munching away at the wastes in the adjacent dump.

When Xorandor’s messages are relayed through Jip and Zab to their father and the scientific community, there is turmoil. There seem to be splendid prospects for nuclear waste disposal and for disarmament. One of Xorandor’s children--they are able to ingest at a distance--has devoured the contents of a test weapon.

Neither the West nor the Soviet Union has any way of knowing how many weapons are being disabled. If deterrence is now totally unreliable, then universal nuclear disarmament should be the only alternative.

Futile Decision

But it is too complicated an alternative for the politicians. Xorandor has announced that it comes from Mars and it has concealed the existence of what it calls its kin-stones. Only Jip and Zab know, and they are sworn to an unreliable form of secrecy. So the decision is made to ship Xorandor and his identifiable offspring “back” to Mars. Perfectly futile, of course. Nuclear weapons will go on being produced and the rocks will go on eating them.


This is quite a bit of plot, and there is quite a lot more. Brooke-Rose is not very good at handling it; one particular climax, involving an aberrant rock that seizes a power station, fizzles almost completely.

The use of bits of computer language is a condiment that provides only mild interest and soon wears out. Jip and Zab, for all their energy and good will, have more sprightliness than charm. Their exclamations--”Stubs!” “Flipping Flip-Flops!”--sound like Little Orphan Annie. They are a narrative device and, eventually, an irritating one.

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.”

But its ideas are provocative, and sometimes more than that. The fascinating thing about Xorandor and its kin-stones is not so much their composition or the puzzles they provoke. It is the link between their source of life--radiation--and the purpose of their life.

They exist, as Xorandor puts it, to process data. But the data they process is humanity--its acts, its words, its ideas. If Xorandor’s eruption into speech is a warning, it is a warning on behalf of its own vital impulse. Humanity is too precious to extinguish itself; these rocks refuse to let it.