Conquest by Nina Allan review – alien invasion, coding and Bach

In the future, Earth has won a gruelling war against an extraterrestrial civilisation. As a monument to human resilience and his own awesomeness, an egotistical billionaire plans to build an enormous residential tower out of a unique kind of rock mined from the alien homeworld. The rock is black and gives off a curious warmth. But what if it is also alive?

So goes the story of The Tower, the central chapter of Nina Allan’s brilliantly ludic novel, which is presented as an extract of a novel of the same name, written by a fictional and near-forgotten novelist of the mid-20th century. The main line of Conquest, though, happens in the present, where a group of online conspiracy theorists take The Tower to be an accurate prophecy of an actual forthcoming war among the stars. This is, of course, known to terrestrial governments, who have a secret supersoldier programme and are probably whacking people who find out too much.

Robin, an ex-police officer and now private detective, is drawn into this febrile atmosphere for a missing persons case. A man named Frank, a mathematical and coding genius prone to mental illness, was invited by mysterious others on the conspiracy forum to meet in person in Paris, and he never came back. His girlfriend, Rachel, hires Robin to track him down. This involves travelling to a dreary hotel in Scarborough, site of the recent suspicious expiration of a journalist, and to a small town in Scotland where something strange may have landed in the woods.

While all this is going on, everyone also practises music criticism. Frank and Robin both listen to a lot of Bach and explain – sometimes in slightly unbelievable dialogue with third parties – why they prefer one recording over another and Bach to other composers. Compared with the unruly genius of Johann Sebastian, one says, “The whole of Haydn is a kind of politeness, like watered-down beer”. The Goldberg Variations, the Violin Partita No 2 and other pieces form the imagined soundtrack to the novel, which is at length woven in a surprising and satisfying way into its thematic concerns.

Those who think that novels have no business including pages of musicology will no doubt also recoil from a chapter that takes the form of an essay written by one of the alien-conspiracy characters, a lecturer in film, who rehearses the entire plot of the 2013 film Upstream Color, or another one, ostensibly by a photographer, which discusses the music of Hans Werner Henze and the poetry of Ingeborg Bachmann. These, too, turn out to be relevant, as do other references to classic science fiction such as The Day of the Triffids, Solaris and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1972 novel Roadside Picnic (adapted as Tarkovsky’s film Stalker).

Highly cerebral and metatextual though it is, Conquest is also poetic – hymning “the saffron light of the late afternoon” in suburban London – as well as playful and often funny. Allan evidently enjoys inventing hostile reviews for her own made-up novel. She is perceptive and amusing, too, on the psychology of conspiracy theories. “Our secret enthusiasm for esoteric knowledge and occult drama is as old as time,” one character observes; meanwhile the plotting forumites mention the eminent US cosmologist Carl Sagan, “who everyone … agreed had been an FBI stooge”.

But might these too-online freaks be on to something? Might there be some arcane truth in their overanalysis of disparate signs? For her part, Robin can’t help coming to half believe in the truth of the interstellar war, and the possibility that Earth has already been silently infected by an inscrutable alien growth. Her detective story, as she tries to track down Frank, furnishes the propulsion of a straight-up sci-fi thriller, while thoughts of ecological collapse, astrobiology and artistic revolution swirl around the characters’ minds. Perhaps most impressively, Allan deftly manages to hold open all possible readings of events as plausible – until, perhaps, the very end.

In its themes of misinformation, potential microbiological Trojan horses and conspiracy, Conquest can also be read in total as a joyously fantastical and elaborate Covid-19 allegory; if so, it is surely the best book yet to emerge from the pandemic.

skip past newsletter promotion

Conquest by Nina Allan is published by Riverrun (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.