They say that the best dystopian fiction should always be uncomfortably close to home. Brave New World and 1984, the two shining examples of the genre, dressed up the social concerns of their days in futuristic garb which, laughably dated and inaccurate as they may seem to modern eyes, did not detract at all from the books’ core warnings. In his latest novel, Intrusion, Scottish sci-fi legend Ken MacLeod concocts a heady and hypnotising brew of politics, science and religion to serve as a warning for our times. While he is already respected as much for his scientific and political nous as for his literary talents, is Ken up to joining the likes of Orwell and Huxley?
On it’s surface, Intrusion is the tale of Hope Morrison, and perfectly average resident of a near-future London. Married to Hugh, mother of Nick and with another child on the way, her life is a picture of domestic normalcy. Unlike much recent speculative fiction, this world is rather benign. Yes climate change has caused problems but advances in molecular and genetic engineering have worked wonders. Solar power has increased in efficiency to the point where even wind turbines now seem wasteful and are being dismantled by the farmload. Fuel use is all but outlawed but on the bright side, forests of New Wood – grown to design for structural purposes – and readily available sheet diamond (for all your reinforcement needs) at least partially alleviate the inconvenience. There are the usual nods to current technological fads as well – Google Glass is, of course, ubiquitous and any information you could ever need about your current whereabouts and company are but a blink away.
There have also been medical advances. Pregnant women now have the option of taking The Fix, a miraculous pill which repairs deleterious DNA mutations, making hereditary disease a thing of the past. There is of course an opt-out for religious believers but in Hope’s case she simply doesn’t like the idea of messing with her or Hugh’s genes, of taking that part of them away from her child for better or worse. It’s not compulsory though. Or is it? Before long the loving arms of government begin to squeeze and what began for her as simply exercising her rights as a citizen soon turns into a nightmare threatening to rob her of her children as well as her freedom.
Where Orwell envisioned an overtly totalitarian state attempting to brainwash its citizens, Intrusion‘s vision of hell is far more subtle and not a million miles from what we currently experience. The nanny state has been taken to extremes by a government embracing the concept of libertarian paternalism, explained beautifully in the novel but boiling down to “do whatever you want as long as it’s the option we selected in your best interests”. Smoking has been all but outlawed, necessitating the creation of fly-by-night smoke-easies operating out of friendly kitchens. Those with child wear monitor rings which deliver small tingles to alert the wearer to the presence of toxins in the environment – as well as reporting any alcohol intake to the relevant authorities.
Hope’s predicament would not seem out of place in a Kafka novel, with her repeated attempts to implement reason in a world where reason no longer seems to apply. No disagreement with the State can be brooked because the State has carefully considered what’s in your best interests, and failure to recognise this is simply evidence that you are deluded. In these discussion MacLeod makes no bones about comparing the policies and direction of current western governments to those we once railed against in Soviet Russia and Communist China. Consent of the masses is required in order to sustain peace and harmony, therefore dissent must be quashed. But why would anyone dissent from such a glorious system? Surely their very disagreement must mark them as enemies. Anyone who has read or taken the recent UK Citizenship Tests surely feels a shiver about now…
While Intrusion is chiefly concerned with the implications of Hope’s principled stance, MacLeod also uses a couple of sub-plots to discuss further related issues. Hope’s predicament is both aided and abetted by Geena, a social researcher at a nearby biotech firm whose gall in daring to be slightly dark of skin brings down the wrath of the government. In a truly chilling segment we are shown the lengths the State will go to in order to maintain the narrative of “them vs us” and the fear necessary to keep it stoked. In retaliation she sets events in motion which, despite good intentions, spell serious trouble for Hope and her family.
Speaking of which there is also Hugh. A former resident of Lewis, he is a taciturn, gentle soul but not without issues. Issues like seeing people who aren’t really there, images apparently of a past long forgotten, of glaciers and animal-hide boats. Hugh keeps this ‘second sight’ a secret even from his wife but does not realise the part it will soon play in their life. When discussing this and the other technological advances, MacLeod’s scientific understanding really comes to the fore, breaking complex issues down into easily digestible chunks without patronising the reader. Even the subtleties of religion get a look in as Hugh’s father, although not an island native by birth, is now a member of the local Wee Free Kirk and the expected father-son theological disputes play out with good humour.
As a standard work of speculative sci-fi, Intrusion is a winner. Well-paced throughout with excellent characterisation and and thorough grounding in modern science and politics it is difficult to find fault. Now and again I found myself annoyed with Hope’s reactions to her circumstances, wondering what the hell she was playing at until I placed myself in her shoes and the penny dropped. Her questionable actions always boil down to restricted options in an unwinnable scenario, a political Kobayashi-Maaru. As a modern-day companion to the great works of dystopian literature Intrusion fares almost as well. MacLeod is always careful to ensure that we know where the danger lies – with those who legislate technology’s uses, rather than with the technology itself – and never overstates the case for his views. However, in this jaded age that may almost be a failing. With current Western levels of cynicism and apathy (despite the media coverage of Anonymous, Occupy, et al) it’s difficult to imagine this or any other book being anything like the iconic rallying cry to vigilance and action that was 1984. More’s the pity, since the need may now be greater than ever.