Baby-stepping towards dystopia
Science fiction has a long tradition of examining the politics and culture of the present through the lens of dystopia: nightmare scenarios in which human beings live under totalitarian repression, whether it be at the hands of a faceless, impersonal state (as in George Orwell’s 1984 ), the uber-egalitarian collective will (Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We ), or a patriarchy harking back to Biblical social norms (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale ).
Of course, dystopia doesn’t have to be imposed from above, overnight, by a power-hungry dictator and his jackbooted thugs. In Ken MacLeod’s latest novel, set roughly a generation in the future, England – and to a lesser extent Scotland – has become a land of repression that’s based almost entirely on common sense, collective consent, and incremental change. True, it’s a place where stop-and-search has morphed into stop-and-torture (the terrorists may be different, but the War On Terror rolls on). Yet it’s also a place where the air is clean, the Tories aren’t in government, climate change is being overcome through scientific ingenuity rather than a retreat to pre-industrial living standards, and a single pill taken during pregnancy – the “fix” – can prevent virtually all childhood diseases and genetic defects.
The fix isn’t compulsory, of course; heaven forbid! It’s just strongly recommended . After all, what responsible parent could possibly put their child at risk by not opting for such a quick, harmless route to near-perfect health?
MacLeod’s main character, expectant mother Hope Morrison, discovers that simply deciding against something is no longer enough: questions have to be answered, boxes have to be ticked, and people must be shepherded into making the correct free choice. Without a documentable religious objection to the fix – the state has learned that it’s unwise to deny true believers anything, what with terrorism and all that – Morrison is viewed by creepily well-meaning officialdom and fearfully over-protective neighbours alike as unforgivably selfish.
After a superb opening chapter that juggles characterisation, set-up, and background infodumping both economically and pointedly, MacLeod cranks up the tension in all sorts of intricately devious ways. It all goes splendidly Kafkaesque: despite all Hope’s efforts, everything she does only confirms the idea that she’s an unfit mother. Much as he did in his hugely enjoyable 2007 novel The Execution Channel , MacLeod revels in the page-turning possibilities of the near-future thriller format, and judges the pacing very well indeed.
As a portrait of benign tyranny, Intrusion is chillingly effective (and morbidly entertaining), not least because so many of this future state’s dystopian elements are rooted in inarguable Good Things. It takes a seriously determined – and seriously cold-blooded – libertarian ideologue to argue in favour of, say, parents’ right to condemn their children to suffer and die of preventable diseases. Where to draw the line between private life and public good is not a debate unique to our time, or to dystopian fiction, but the technology of MacLeod’s world enables him to present the issues more starkly. Here, women are not just subject to stern government health warnings – and social disapproval – about how they use their bodies during pregnancy; they are now “encouraged” to wear sensor rings that allow their local health centre to monitor every molecule they encounter. This is a society being slowly smothered by the systems and safeguards it demanded at the ballot box, and the hobby-horses of its favourite newspapers.
Intrusion is a finely-tuned, in-your-face argument of a novel that will annoy just about every reader (including this reviewer!) at some point. Whichever end of the political spectrum you fall, on MacLeod will push your buttons – and make you think.
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