Fiction Reviews


(2012) Ken MacLeod, Orbit, 8.99, pbk, 387pp, ISBN 978-1-841-49940-6


This year (2013) sees the first mass market paperback release of last year's hardback of Ken MacLeod's latest offering, Intrusion. It is set in what appears to be an optimistic near-future, Hope Morrison is expecting her second child. The Earth has warmed due to climate change but, through largely ditching fossil carbon, using renewables, extensive forestation of fast-growing GM crops and other 'green' measures, the climate has stabilised; indeed it is hinted, it might even be beginning to cool.

Intrusion is peppered with thoughtful observations and insights into MacLeod's future. For example, one aspect of global warming is more winter snow over the British Isles. This is something we might in reality reasonably expect with global warming for two reason's: more Atlantic evaporation in a warmer world and secondly occasional shifts from predominant weather patterns bringing cold easterlies from mainland continental northern Europe: the former is in reality already reasonably established though the exact mechanisms for the latter are [currently] still not as elucidated as we might like. (Forgive me for digressing into one of my areas of interest: climate change biology.) MacLeod also includes a climate debate twist: in the novel there are scientists who claim to have evidence that the climate was changing under the impact of human activity and that these were called 'deniers' who believed that the new, carbon-sequestering trees were working so well that, with the cut in fossil fuel use, the Earth was threatening to slip into another ice age glacial. (But don't let MacLeod's delightful fiction seduce you that that is a prospect currently on the cards in our real world, though it is a genuine bio-geoengineering risk should we ever embark on that route.) MacLeod's future also has other technological advances. For instance, it includes laminated diamond 'glass' windows and what are the equivalent of ultra-advanced Google glasses (spectacles). And then there are the concerns: for instance, there are second hand bookshops are all but gone due to fears of fourth-hand cigarette smoke.

It is here, with these social developments, that we begin to see the dark side of MacLeod's future. The inklings begin with what seem justifiable health-and-safety concerns and we get a short info-dump on real economic 'externalities' (costs we do not normally consider when buying goods such as the production workers' conditions or manufacturing pollution) and how the free market truly assumes that we all have 'perfect information': we weigh up all the pros (quality, utility, enhanced social value [fashion], etc) and cons (cost, pollution etc) when considering to buy goods. Because there is no such thing as perfect consumer information, the government of McLeod's future helps us make the 'right' choice and indeed pressurises citizen's accordingly. Some aspects of McLeod's future are likely: while today cheap holiday flights dominated air miles early in the twenty-first century it is truly likely that the middle of the century will see this sector markedly decline. Although McLeod's future has no holiday flights, in reality they may continue but be far more a rare and more expensive luxury than they are today, and they may even accrue some small social stigma unless you are also going to see family and friends or go for an additional reason such as an international event.

MacLeod's future government 'care' for its citizens 'helping' them to make 'right' choices at first comes across as rather worthy: who does (other than red neck bigots and the selfish greedy) not want to be encouraged and given the means to live healthily and more harmoniously with the planet? However as we get a quarter of the way into the book we begin to see that 'helping' is more 'coercion' if not outright (but disguised) 'forcing' of citizen's to make certain lifestyle choices. MacLeod is not painting a future halfway to some sort of utopia but something socially dystopic wrapped up in a left-of-centre (though it could as easily be right-of-centre) facade.

The above surrounds the pivotal plot concept about which the novel turns: Hope Morrison is expecting her second child and has to decide whether or not to take 'the Fix' a gene therapy tablet that will genetically edit out her fetus' DNA errors and impairing genes. Theoretically Hope has a free choice in the matter and, for example, if she had religious beliefs (and could show she practiced that religion) she would be free to decline taking the Fix. The Fix is relatively new and she already had one child, Nick, without having to take the Fix. The problem Hope soon discovers is that the world has moved on and the Fix has become socially accepted as well as firmly embedded in governmental systems. The problem she faces is that she simply does not want to take the Fix and has unspecified reasons for this call it a gut feeling but that this is not acceptable to the system. As her pregnancy develops, pressure for her to take the Fix mounts... Meanwhile her husband occasionally suffers from short episodes of visions in which he seems to see into the past, and there is world conflict and an international terrorist threat overhanging in the background. And so we see that the 'intrusion' title is both that of the technological intrusion into individuals' genomes as well as of state intrusion into parental choice plus we get a bonus SFnal intrusion along the way.

MacLeod has given us a finely crafted book that may well appeal as much to a mainstream audience into mundane fiction as it will to those into exotic genre fiction. The near-future is not so far as removed from the present day to alienate non-SF readers and MacLeod has a solid writing style. As such this book will appeal to a litcrit readership and I can see Intrusion being shortlisted for a number of jury-panel judged SF awards. Now, such a comment can be seen as double-edged as a number of SF panel-decided awards tend to go for works whose writing style is deemed 'literary' but yet such award-winners often do not sell particularly well, let alone to genre readers (don't take my word for it, check the data) even if the book gets a certain cached kudos. However, in this case this novel not only will appeal to those into so-called 'literary' SF but also those who enjoy new wave, hard SF mixed with a dash of sense-of-wonder (sensawunda). This book could therefore well accrue a decent sized readership and I certainly hope it does. There is quite a bit going on and enough near-future description to keep traditional SF readers engaged irrespective of a compelling plot which, although starts slowly, continues to gather momentum until we reach the book's conclusion that and I will not spoil it for you manages to be both anticlimactic and climactic at the same time: this in itself is an achievement for the writer. The one thing I will say is that if you come across something more than once in the book then it will be included in the end wrap-up as well as set against a reasonably hard-SF context.

It transpires reading the novel's end acknowledgement section that it was written as part of the author's year as writer in residence at Edinburgh University at the ESCR ('Economics and Social Research Council' as the author does not explain) Genomics and Research Forum. Here I would have liked more detail and even some pointers to some of the science and science and society debate. Of course, such is not obligatory but readers would have benefitted. So, as you are reading a Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation review, let me offer you a possible choice non-fiction accompanying matter with the excellent book Redesigning Humans: Choosing Our Children's Genes. Meanwhile Ken MacLeod has given us his own thoughtful fiction that I am more than happy to recommend.

Jonathan Cowie

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