Fiction Reviews


(2009) Stuart B. MacBride, HarperVoyager, £12.99, trdpbk, 376 pp, ISBN-13 978-0-00-729870-9

Like Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks, Stuart B. MacBride is the SF alter ego of crime writer Stuart MacBride, best known for the ‘Logan McCrae’ series of six crime novels to date. Halfhead is set in my adopted city of Glasgow, but one so changed in the near future that little of it is familiar. For those who do not know Glasgow, the river Clyde runs through the city from east to west and there is a division of prejudice between the North Side and the South Side; though not on the scale of the one between Glasgow and Edinburgh. The skyline is dominated by tower blocks but the city’s population is falling and Glasgow Housing Association is demolishing the towers as they fall vacant – there was a big ‘blowdown’ in Sighthill, one of the deprived areas of the city, just before I wrote this. In Halfhead, though, the South Side is dominated by enormous blocks, with a populace tranquillised by virtual reality, ruled by criminals and partly wrecked by the VR Riots of eleven years before – presumably when the entertainment broke down. Outside the city, it seems global warming has taken its toll.

"The river Clyde sparkled like a barbed-wire fence… hemmed in by the massive barrier walls that cut the city in two and wrapped all the way around the outside. Keeping the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea from swallowing it whole." The only mention of the outside world, near the end of the book, concerns ‘the Southern Republic of the Newnited States’. "On the south side of the river the city changed; there were none of the great ‘revivalist architectural projects’ or trendy sandstone communities. Over there it was all foamcrete and industrial plastic, a grey landscape of Compressed Urban Habitation units sweltering in the sun…

"From here they had a perfect view of Glasgow’s main transport hub – shuttles, Groundhuggers, Behemoths, all in the process of coming or going. Little one-person Bumbles vwipped through the air, following complicated holding patterns, twisting and turning like flocks of starlings as a huge blue Behemoth slipped its moorings and lumbered up into the sweltering morning. Two minutes later it was just a distant silhouette against the dirty-yellow sky."

The halfheads of the title are convicted criminals who have been lobotomised and as an additional security measure, have had their lower jaws removed so that they can live only on the liquid food pumped into them by the controllers of the teams in which they work, mostly on mundane tasks such as cleaning. Supposedly they are invisible, like the murderer in one of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories who disguises himself as a postman. I find that hard to believe when they are so badly disfigured, but it is essential to the plot, in which a convicted and mutilated serial killer returns to self-awareness – not miraculously, like Sean Connery’s surviving a lobotomy in A Fine Madness, but due to the machinations of a doctor who’s creating a private army of killers. Revenge and mayhem follow with the police two or more steps behind, as the hero accumulates more injuries and suspensions than I found credible. Nevertheless it is a gripping read and with a sequel promised, more bloodshed is in prospect.

Duncan Lunan

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