From the outset of his career, Ian McDonald has been one of the most socially and culturally relevant writers of science fiction. His first novel Desolation Road a look at the growth and decline of a small town a la The Martian Chronicles and One Hundred Years of Solitude, his second novel Out on Blue Six a look at Utopianism commenting on Thatcherism, and his third King of Morning, Queen of Day a multi-generational overview of a family in Northern Ireland (a sci-fi version of John Crowley’s Little, Big in many ways), McDonald has long had his heart and mind in the plight of the peoples and cultures of the world. His fourth novel, originally published as Hearts, Hands, and Voices in the UK but re-titled The Broken Land for the US market, sees the author returning to his beloved Northern Ireland, this time to take a closer look at the political and religious struggles of the region. Recently brought back to life by Open Road Media after two decades out of print, the following is a review of the novel.
Hearts, Hands, and Voices is the story of Mathembe Filiel, a teenage girl living in what at the outset appears far future Africa, but in fact could be anywhere, including other planets. While a state of semi-civil war exists with the Imperialists, life in her village of Chepseynt goes easily in the fecund forests and fields of the land. Participating in jungle hunts, genoplast molding, and time with her family, she lives the typical life of a teenager until a couple of village members choose to harbor rebel Nationalists warriors. The Emperor-Across-the-River discovering the concealment, he sends an Imperial brigade to raze the village and teach a lesson to other Nationalists. Their home in ashes, the family’s belongings limited to what they could collect in five minutes, and the village in mass exodus, Mathembe is left to fend for herself—a difficult task as complete civil war engulfs the land.
Before taking this review any further, it is of vital importance to note perhaps the most prominent feature of the novel: Hearts, Hands, and Voices is Walt Whitman in sci-fi form. Flaring, allusive, flowing, dynamic, at times uncontrolled, occasionally obscure, and always organic—one must brace themselves before opening the novel. Switching between a variety of modes (first person, storyteller, third person, direct exposition, second person, poetic phrasing, and so forth), the narrative is written in freestyle prose. See the following introduction of a set piece:
“But to you river people, you who are bound by the waters of your wombs to it all your lives; you captains, you engineers, you clansfolk, you lifters and loaders and crane operators, you fisherpeople, you sweet brown diving girls, you ferrymen you pilots and navigators, it is not even The River. It is something deeper and more reverential than that. You call it she.
She is looking kind today.
I think she is going to blowup bad today.
I had a load far down, you know where she runs out to sea.
Before Empire and province, she was.
Before Proclaimer and Confessor, she was.
Before all science, before all knowledge, before all history, before all legend, she was.”
The text is meant to flow, and flow it does—often shooting off to the left or right before coming back to the center channel. And I can see two reasons. The first is to emphasize the chaos of living in civil war times, and the second is to underline the spiritual and ‘back-to-nature’ lifestyle of Mathembe and her fellow village members—a lifestyle they eventually must strive to regain. Whitman the perfect choice to emulate when such ideas are at the forefront, those unfamiliar with the poet may try a few selections from Leaves of Grass before digging into the novel.
As such, Hearts, Hands, and Voices as a title would seem to suit the novel better than the straight-forward The Broken Land. The former capturing the novel’s poetic style, the American desire to simplify the title in the hopes of capturing a wider audience probably backfires once readers encounter the less-than-standard syntax. While certainly far from being as dense and disassociating as a Pynchon novel, McDonald nevertheless sets himself apart from the genre crowd by being an author whose ambitions include style—not the mindset of Alastair Reynolds, Peter Hamilton, John Scalzi and other writers of entry level sci-fi. Hearts, Hands, and Voices is thus better appreciated by readers who are looking to engage with a story rather than be pacified by it, as regardless of title, the text remains the same.
All this being said, Hearts, Hands, and Voices is only partially elusive. Fluttering in and out of accessibility, it does require more effort than the average mainstream sci-fi novel, but not as much as other books, for example the later books in M. John Harrison’s Viriconium sequence or Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. The story set in an imaginary yet futuristically possible setting, McDonald maintains a sense of realism in order that the parallels he is attempting to draw remain plausible, that is, rather than skipping right off the page in allusion and literary complexity. The denouement is more fantasy than sci-fi, but the entire storyline leading up to that point is intended to be tactile, and thus the narrative more often than not manifests itself in visceral terms.
Given Northern Ireland is the inspiration, Hearts, Hands, and Voices is founded on dichotomies. As would be expected, the most prominent are religion (Catholicism vs. Protestantism represented by the Confessors and Proclaimers), politics (Irish Nationalists vs. British Nationalists represented by the Nationalists and Imperialists—the Warriors of Destiny standing in for the IRA), and language (English vs. Irish represented by New and Old Speech). The ‘Speech’ aspect perhaps a bit too much given the large scope of religion and politics, McDonald thankfully never creates a new language and focuses on the other two incongruities to mirror reality. The political parallels reflecting in straight-forward fashion, it’s with the religious parallels that the author takes creative license, particularly given the far future setting, the organic feel of the story, Mathembe’s spiritual and personal choices, and the creativity innate to religion in general. In other words, the political dichotomy is more palpable while the religious is more symbolic.
Not choosing sides, McDonald lets real history motivate the narrative. Though a Nationalist Confessor (Catholic Irish), Mathembe gets bounced around by the war in affective, occasionally traumatic fashion (real history) before finding a personal solution to the problem (the fiction). A plot device Ursula Le Guin employs as well, McDonald uses the potential of science fiction to extend beyond the bounds of mimetic fiction to produce a conclusion that not only presents the issues and concerns of a people and culture, but also acts as a representative resolution. The number of writers who attempt to use sci-fi for such social and cultural value in the minority, McDonald should be lauded.
But there remains eye-candy in Hearts, Hands, and Voices; McDonald has prepared a feast. Mathembe’s people are creators and shapers of plasma and DNA, producing animal-machines that feed off syrup sacs (something like Vance’s The Last Castle) which do the same work as beasts of burden and machines from the past. A trux, for example, is a wheeled animal that offers the benefits of both ox and car and must be fed/fueled and cared for like both. Likewise, Mathembe and her mother are plasma shapers. Capable of molding small creatures and animalcules by channeling their imagination through their hands, the talent goes a long way toward keeping food in Mathembe’s stomach when the times get hard. This bio-tech (including a ‘living’ graveyard), a couple of elements borrowed from cyberpunk, and an overall futuristic feel plant the novel firmly in sci-fi soil (pun intended for those who have read the book).
That being said, concerns of the novel would seem to be regarding ambition—not from a thematic point of view, rather content. The gonzo text and implementation of a bit of technology here and there to suit a chapter seem to take over the human elements at times, and at others be extraneous—indeed mere eye candy that makes the story sci-fi but is not necessary for the thematic point or scene. The masks for example, do little to enhance or comment upon anything. The result is that the novel can feel overwhelming occasionally. Given the dynamic nature of the narrative, however, things rarely get bogged down in spurious material, the story moving ahead apace.
In the end, Hearts, Hands, and Voices is a no holds barred superimposition of the struggles of Northern Ireland onto a far future African-esque setting. The ghost of Whitman guiding McDonald’s pen, the story is fully dynamic—from technology to plotting, emotions to story outcomes, and most prominently in the freestyle prose. (For these aspects, fans of Charles Stross may enjoy the novel.) But the gonzo attitude toward storytelling does not seep into the conclusion. One which seeks to transcend the conflict rather than glorify or pity it, echoes of Ursula Le Guin can be seen in the final pages. But while perhaps McDonald was a bit too ambitious (as possibly indicated by his return to Africa with the Chaga books), he cannot be faulted for bringing to light the struggles of Northern Ireland, and in turn offering a progressive solution to such social and cultural dilemmas. A good book that requires patience.
(Moving laterally, the film Shadow Dancer comes highly recommended for its portrayal of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Though wholly realist compared to McDonald’s novel, it too does a great job of portraying the visceral struggles of the region.)