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Arch-Conspirator – Veronica Roth

by Venky

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A sci-fi retelling of Sophocles’ timeless tragedy Antigone, Arch-Conspirator is a one-sitting breezy and exciting read. The events that unravel in an unattractive, unkempt and dusty city (undoubtedly a throwback to the Thebes of Sophocles but deliberately masked in so far as any cartographical location is concerned, in its current Avatar), are an absolute dystopian delight. Readers getting their hijinks from Atwood, Orwell, Huxley and Ishiguro would lap Arch-Conspirator with a great degree of gusto!

Just over 100 pages in length, the book deals with an ingeniously imagined poly crisis that has imperiled whatever humanity that is still fortunate, or unfortunate (as may be appropriate) to be living and breathing. Preservation of the human race is resorted to by ‘harvesting’ the genetic material of the deceased and storing the same in a gargantuan repository, unimaginatively, yet appropriately named, The Archive. The genetic material, popularly referred to as the ichor is extracted by using a long blade simply known as The Extractor. Procreation by natural methods is frowned upon and childbirth is the outcome of selecting desirable traits by women, for their offspring from the Archive.

Antigone, and her siblings, Polyneikes, Ismene, and Eteocles are looked down upon as soulless creatures since they were a product of conventional childbirth. Their parents Oedipus and Jocasta, the last democratically elected leaders of society are treacherously murdered by the uncle of the siblings, Kreon. The traitor however spares the lives of the children and in a sadistic show of ‘mercy’, allows them untrammeled use of his own dwelling abode.

When Polyneikes attempts to stage a coup to dislodge the unscrupulous Kreon, all hell breaks loose, and Antigone finds herself unwittingly involved in the deadly plot. As a punishment for her misdemeanours she is directed by Kreon to board the only available spaceship in the whole city called the Trireme. Her mission: to issue forth a call for help to any other living soul that may be inhabiting any sustaining planet.

The frontispiece of Roth’s story is its telling simplicity. Even when dealing with a crisis that has assumed existential proportions, the narrative is fundamental. An ‘outside-in’ perspective, keeps the impartiality alive as every character is allowed to justify his or her actions. The culmination of each of these radical activities crescendos towards a climax that the reader just cannot wait to arrive at. Roth also blends the ancient with the modern, the rustic with the sophisticated and anticipation with resignation in certain passages that are absolute gold. “All the buildings in this part of the Electran District were worn by weather and wind, but covered in colourful graffiti, some more artful than others. I paused by a scene of a boat in the midst of a stormy sea, a cartoon duo boxing in a ring with gloves made of rock, a woman’s face with a name and date scrawled beneath it.” What a marvelously delightful clash of contrasts!

Not lending itself to the traditional pattern of a determined beginning, a stable middle and a stitched up ending, Arch-Conspirator is a refreshingly different take on a genre whose contemporaneous addressal has alas left a lot to be desired.

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