Framingham, MA: NESFA Press, 2006; £25 hb; 349pp
reviewed in New York Review of Science Fiction 222, February 2007
Boskone and the New England SF Association are good to their Guests of Honour, putting together a book of their work. This particular volume, for example, brings together short pieces by MacLeod with a cover by artist guest Donato Giancola. And a nice enough cover it is too, even if it bears absolutely no relationship to the contents of the book. But it is with the contents that the problems really lie.
You see, Ken MacLeod is a novelist. He is a skilled, challenging and distinguished novelist, widely and deservedly acclaimed, in fact just the sort of person who deserves a Guest-of-Honourship. But there isn’t actually much left over to make up a volume such as this. Every single short story he has written, five in all, is included here. Even when you reclassify his children’s novel, The Web: Cydonia, as a novella, the total page count is barely 140 pages, which leaves a lot to make up if you want a half-way decent volume.
Let’s pause to look at the fiction. Cydonia, which has already been published as a stand-alone novel and as part of an omnibus, is full of the typical MacLeod characteristics, which come down basically to politics and paranoia. It is somewhat simplified for its original audience, one could easily imagine MacLeod writing pretty much the same story for adults simply by making the paranoia darker and the politics more intricate, and by replacing the self-reliant teenage protagonists with morally questionable grown-ups. Other than that it is business as usual, set in a digital world of former terrorists, conspiracy nuts, loose-cannon police, fast action and interludes of surreal comedy. Nevertheless it feels slight compared to the other novella here, The Human Front (which has also seen the light of day as a stand-alone volume, otherwise I’d have thought NESFA would have been far better advised to issue this on its own and forget trying to make up the weight with the rest of the material gathered here). The Human Front is an alternate history set largely in Scotland, and despite the different timeline one can quite clearly see MacLeod’s own experience refracted in the first and better half of the story which tells of the gradual radicalisation of a doctor’s son. Later, when what appear to be at first aliens, then time travellers, are added to the mix, the dark and concentrated political tone of the novella is dissipated, weakening the story somewhat, but this is still by some way the best thing in the book.
Of the other four stories, two, ‘The Oort Crowd’ and ‘Undead Again’, were among the short-short stories that Nature now seems to be making a habit of running, and as unsatisfactory in fictional terms as those pieces almost always are. ‘Tairlidhe’, which turns upon a timeslip during the flight from Culloden, is not much longer but considerably better. While ‘A Case of Consilience’, about attempts to communicate with the very alien, echoes too many other science fiction stories and runs along too predictable a track to be entirely satisfactory. The Human Front aside, therefore, this is not exactly a compelling collection of short fiction.
What else might bulk out the book? One common option might be to include non-fiction about science fiction, but while some of the reviews featured here demonstrate that MacLeod is an astute critic of the genre who should do a lot more, the truth is he doesn’t do very much. The publishers have managed to scrape together a dozen pieces, including a couple of attempts to illuminate the ‘Fall Revolution’ sequence which, MacLeod says in his introduction, are ‘sincere but confused. I no longer agree with everything I said in them’. To be honest I suspect anyone looking for a clear and valuable explication of those books would be well advised to look elsewhere. The other critical pieces are better, particularly where his interests in the genre and in left-wing politics intersect, such as the short essay on libertarianism, the even shorter (but extraordinarily potent) analysis of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the pieces on utopias and on whether sf has to be about the present. I don’t always agree with him, particularly in the latter article, but there is no denying the knowledge and the analytical skills he brings to the subject. In the end, though, this is again an all too brief section of the book and one is left puzzling over why he doesn’t write more about sf.
So what else can be found to fill near-enough half the volume under review? There are some poems, again enough to make us wish he wrote more but not sufficient for a book. These are among the oldest pieces in here, some of them dating back to the early-1970s, and most of them already published in his collection Poems and Polemics. Other than that, it seems that the one place MacLeod does write often and at short length is on newsgroups and, more recently, his blog, so the remainder of the book is made up of things from these sources. There are convention reports which are, alas, pretty banal. There are pieces on science, mostly harking back to MacLeod’s own training in biology, which are (a sadly common refrain where this book is concerned) too short and too few. There are pieces on Scotland and more generally on politics which, as might be expected, are often arresting, though too many of them, especially on Scotland, really demand to be expanded. At the moment they are mostly slick, oblique, and too full of assumptions about what we already know. There is a fierce and committed political intelligence behind these pieces, but they tend to come across as outpourings of emotion rather than astute analysis. Had MacLeod taken the time to work on these pieces, develop the arguments, provide the background, they might almost have stood as a short but valuable and revealing work in their own right. As it is, we get glimpses of the fervour and the ideology underlying the writer, but they are lit as if by lightning, brief and savage and almost instantly disappearing into the blackness again. Finally the book is rounded off with a short cluster of ‘squibs’ which need not detain us, or indeed any reader.
We are left with a book that is tantalising rather than satisfying, a rather careless and untidy ramming together of disparate parts that fail to make a coherent whole. Yet within the mess of bits and pieces gathered here there are frustrating fragments of what might have been a much better work. There is the beginning of a worthwhile critical approach to science fiction – if only he wrote more. There is the beginning of a fascinatingly polemical work on left-wing politics – if only he wrote more. And at least there is The Human Front, where all his astute intelligence about Scottish socialism and science fiction somehow comes together in a remarkable story that, very nearly, makes this whole book worthwhile.