Fiction Reviews

Lie of the Land

(2015) Michael F. Russell, Polygon, £12.99, hrdbk, 293pp, ISBN 978-1-846-97319-2


In Michael F. Russellís Lie of the Land, his hero, the investigative journalist Carl Shewan, has doggedly followed a lead and managed to get out of Glasgow to reach the sleepy little coastal fishing village of Inverlair, a place as far removed from typical horror destinations as you can imagine and that very action has saved his life along with the fact that there is really poor mobile phone reception in Inverlair. Something that I read with a wry smile as I holiday on the East Coast of Scotland every year and know first hand how difficult it is to get a signal, and try and text or phone someone only a couple of miles away, up or down the coast.

Lie of the Land gives us a slightly Orwellian alternative future where the State watches all and surveillance is everywhere. All for our good, of course, for this is a world where the ecological disaster known as 'white rust' has happened and people have to be controlled Ė where they can go is restricted, and when they can do things is also restricted thanks to curfews. For Carl Shewan it cannot get any worse, or so it seems, but State control is about to up a gear with the introduction of the new SCOPE super-surveillance system. Carl has heard things, snippets of bad news that are being concealed and the only way to find out for sure is to head out of Glasgow Ė which will be no mean feat in itself Ė and head north to Inverlair because it is a 'notspot' - out of range of the mobile phone masts and transmitters that are everywhere and meet his informant.

But disaster strikes, big time (and in a way that slightly reminded me of the nanotechnology gone wrong that spells the end of the world in James Lovegroveís 'Shall Inherit# from the collection Solaris Rising 2) but fortunately Shewan is in the right place at the wrong time because when he is in Inverlair SCOPE gets activated and it has a crucial flaw, creating a brain wave like the one associated with deep sleep and soon everyone within its range goes into a deep sleep from which they never wake up. Those in Inverlair occupy their own 'notspot' and are safe, yet if they head out of the village and start getting a signal on their phone their noses will start to bleed and they will get one killer of a headache and then they will meet that big sleep.

Yes, it is the end of the world but not as you know it. Perhaps, more like a 'soft apocalypse' to borrow a phrase by Will McIntosh, or an 'uncosy catastrophe' to warp one by Brian Aldiss. The world ends not by alien invasion, meteor strike, or beneath the clawing hands and tearing teeth of the zombie hordes but by a technological glitch and Carlís world contracts to a place the size of the village and its beautiful surroundings, and seemingly Russell chose the name Inverlair after the real Inverlair Lodge near Inverness where spies were 'parked' following the second world war. Who knows, maybe Patrick McGoohan heard about the place and went on to devise another claustrophobic village of his own.

Lie of the Land is greater than the sum of its possible parts, and those parts might be 1984, or Lord of the Flies, even Under the Dome and certainly, with its pace and visual sense of location and landscape I was reminded of the first half of the novel One written by that poet of horror, Conrad Williams, and perhaps, there is no way to not mention the work of Iain Banks, in particular 'A Song of Stone'. Although, for some this will not be an easy read and it is told in a straightforward style reminiscent of so many reporters turned authors except when Shewan encounters the natural world and thatís when the prose really becomes alive. The story doesnít unfold in a linear fashion, and there times when there was a viewpoint switch that was slightly clunky, but Russell keeps us in a 'need to know' mode with a couple of cards up his sleeve even when we are following Shewan who isnít a particularly likeable character. He is a bit of a rebel and a bit of a boozer, an old-fashioned journalist fighting against the system who finds himself the outsider, trapped in Inverlair as things change and break down and things become hard and turn sour as a new order is established.

I have often wondered what happened to the protagonists in some of my favourite books. To Don Wanderley in Peter Straubís Ghost Story as he staggers away from a beach with a bloody hand. To Ben Mears and Mark Petrie as they light a fire in Salemís Lot. To Carl Marsalis in Richard Calderís Black Man as he walks into the sun. And to that mental list, I can add the characters from Russellís Lie of the Land who are about to Ė to what? Well, read the book and like me, wonder what happened next? If a book can make you do that, then its done part of its job, hasnít it?

Ian Hunter

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