Three Eight One review: Thoughtful speculative sci-fi from Aliya Whiteley

Set in the year 2314, during the ‘Age of Curation’, Aliya Whiteley’s Three Eight One shows us a world where every facet of human creativity has been digitised and catalogued for the benefit of all.

However, when archivist Rowena Savalas uncovers a mysterious uncategorised story from the 21st century, they become obsessed with a desire to find out if it is an autobiography or a madcap morality/fairy tale as the lines seem blurred yet resonant. The story in question is the ‘Dance of the Horned Road’ and reads as the diary of a young woman named Fairly who, having grown up in a walled village in an isolated existence, decides to embark on a rite of passage in the hope of finding herself.

Throughout the reading of Fairly’s story, Rowena annotates various passages with their opinions on what is happening and the meaning behind it. At first, Rowena is merely trying to decipher the validity of the story, but as the story unfolds, their comments become more introspective and Rowena starts to see themselves reflected in the hero’s journey, inspiring them to take on a quest of their own.

Whiteley’s unconventional narrative structure is a stroke of genius for truly embracing and capturing the sense we all feel when we get sucked into a book; falling in love with characters and feeling ourselves forever changed by the very act of reading the story.

Trying to make sense of what is happening and why is not remotely the point of Three Eight One. The very nature of the book is that it is forever wrongfooting both the reader and the archivist who, like Fairly, are unsure of their place in the world. The narrative’s meandering nature and multiple shifting perspectives are but a hint at the cleverness of the book’s design. The story unfolds as a meditative, entrancing expedition for both the narrator and the archivist, provoking passages of self-reflection and self-discovery.

Within the trappings of a simple hero’s adventure, we are treated to a starkly honest and ambiguous challenge to what it means to achieve greatness and whether it should be the dream of all of us. What if we never achieve acclaim? How valid was our contribution, and does our existence matter if we fall short?

Whiteley’s writing builds on the unique style of speculative fiction she delivered in her 2021 sci-fi Skyward Inn. Simultaneously inscrutable and inviting, you are taken on a journey of sci-fi-tinged internal reflection on existence. This is not a conventional quest, but a deeper search for meaning, leading you to trust the author to understand that, in the end, you will know your place.

Three Eight One by Aliya Whiteley is out on 18 January. Pick up your copy here

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