The dystopian/utopian novel has become a genre tradition many science fiction writers feel the urge to confirm. It’s difficult to point to the root story: some say More’s Utopia, others Zamyatin’s We, and still others Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. But regardless, the number of books and stories which utilize the theme are significant. From the gritty side (John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four) to a humanist perspective (Ursula Le Guin’s The Telling and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World), from lesser known works (Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress and Maureen McHugh’s Protection) to the sensationalist side (Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Suzanne Collins Hunger Games), dystopia is one of the most covered topics, and is in fact, a sub-genre of literature itself. Taking an angle Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill would champion, and twisting it into a surreal, post-cyberpunk, transhuman story of excessive proportions, Ian McDonald’s 1989 Out on Blue Six (Open Road Media) is another entry to the lists.
Out on Blue Six is entirely set (well, not entirely, but the reader will need to read and find out exactly what is meant by this caveat) in the great city of Yu. An environmental catastrophe has forced the implementation of order upon society in order to prevent the complete devastation of life and a massive wall has been built around the city. The control of pain considered the lowest common denominator, the ruling Compassionate Society psychologically profiles people at birth, and until death imposes profession, caste, and partner. Any cause of harm to others, be it verbal, physical, spiritual, etc. is a reason for alarm, the Love Police vigilant enforcing the city’s what’s-best-for-the-majority laws. Yu not entirely a controlled state, however, its neon jungle burns with life off the grid.
Though later expanding to encompass the lives and stories of handful of additional characters, the novel initially follows two persons. The first is Courtney Hall. A political cartoonist working for one of the city’s largest media consortiums, in the opening pages she uploads a subversive cartoon for reasons she can’t quite put her finger on. The remainder of the book spent on the run from the Love Police who seek to capture and punish her for the pain she has caused society through her art, she quickly ends up in the underground, both literally and figuratively. Sentient raccoons, confidante to the King of Nebraska, and climbing the five kilometer high wall that encloses the city, hers is an adventure of kaleidoscope dimension going where none can predict. The second is a man who eventually becomes known as Kilimanjaro West. Entering the great city Yu like Jesus (sperm source unknown), after a brief flurry on the bizarre streets, he becomes a member of the Raging Apostles. Like the hippy groups of the counter-culture movement who went on freak outs, the Apostles are a traveling circus of strong futuristic hue who try to shake up society’s mindset by putting a little pain into their lives, as well as “wonder. And joy. And horror. And beauty. And sexuality. And wisdom. And laughter… the conscience of a conscienceless society.” The source of Kilimanjaro West’s personage eventually revealed, his trip to this knowledge is no less psychedelic than Hall’s.
I read in an interview that of all his books, Out on Blue Six is the one McDonald wishes he could recall from the shelves. He did not elaborate on the reasons except to shake his head with a smile. But it’s possible, like M. John Harrison’s dissatisfaction with The Centauri Device, to make a guess based on the content. Foremost apparent is the sheer gonzo dispelling of ideas. Imagination overload, the lines between science fiction, fantasy, and surrealism cease to exist. Hall, Kilimanjaro West, and the others traipse in, on, under, and over a city that defies literary realism. Like much of Charlie Stross’ oeuvre, there is a no holds barred approach to character, setting, and action. Pot smoking, bio-modified raccoon servants might give an inkling of the overload, but bio AIs, bird-dancers, live-fur carpets, wingers, Trashcan the ‘upgraded’ cat, balloononauts, a penis ship, and trogs should make it more apparent—and they are just the tip of the iceberg. One can literally turn to any page in the novel and read of some bizarre object, place, or scene that requires the context of the novel—a slippery notion at best—to fully comprehend. Idea diarrhea, the novel is a strange trip, indeed.
That being said, Out on Blue Six, according to McDonald in the same interview, has a minor cult following; there is a group of fans who adore the novel. Cory Doctorow among them, his quasi-calamity of an introduction points directly to the obtuse froth of ideas as being precisely the reason he loves the book. Certainly something to be said for active imagination, readers who enjoy unrestrained impressionism and imagery may likewise find joy. Beauty, as always, is in the eye of the beholder, and thus requires the reader to inquire for themselves.
It is difficult to continue this review without mentioning the style of narrative. While not as excessive lyrically as Hearts, Hands and Voices (UK)/The Broken Land (US) (which is McDonald’s most experimental novel prosaically), Out on Blue Six is far from being a high school teacher’s dream of ideal storytelling syntax. McDonald making the experience as sensual as possible by adding a poetic dimension, the following is an extract which speaks for itself:
“Snipping, snipping, snipping: today Mr. Slike the Scissorman is on the Ps. Busy scissors snipping, snipping; out they come, the hurtful Ps, excised, edited, deleted, floating down to litter the Scissor-room floor: panic and papacy and paranoia, piles and pernicious and political, plutocrat, and prostitute and Presbyterian; priests face to face with oppressors, nihilists with martinets, lepers with killers, Jansenists with interrogators, heros with grumblers, field marshals with enslaved, dissidents with communists, bastards with aristocrats: a rustling, chattering, cocktail party of incompatibles facedown in the final democracy of the Scissor-room floor. Knee-deep in paper, Mr. Slike the Scissorman snips snips snips with manic glee, out out with the old, hurtful words, the cruel words, the divisive words.” (164)
Nearly the entire narrative having such a loose, slippery feel, the reader needs to either grab hold and hang on, or let the rhythm take them.
Exponentially outpacing the literary daring of McDonald’s first novel Desolation Road, Out on Blue Six is an ambitious second novel. Seemingly believing he can do anything conceptually, the story is swimming in science fiction conceits spun to max on the surreal. Conceptually (and some would say, lyrically) all over the map, Out on Blue Six is not a standard science fiction novel, and must be approached without expectation. The conclusion firmly in Brave New World territory, McDonald takes the opposite road to arrive there, however, humanism the only common element. Huxley’s ending a tragedy which values the freedom of choice, Out on Blue Six’s is more maudlin in presentation and assumption, and betrays the occasional trite moments which precede. (“I am a man in search of a history so he may have a future.” is a quote from KW at one point.) Bearing some small resemblance to Pohl and Kornbluth’s dystopian The Space Merchants and influencing Jeff Vandermeer’s Veniss Underground and Jeff Noon’s Vurt (and possible Charlie Stross’ fiction), it may even be best to go in with 3D goggles: of the dystopian novels to date, this is the most surreally psychedelic.