In 2008, Chris Beckett published the novel Marcher to little acclaim. A later release Dark Eden (2012) meeting a much better response (it was nominated for the BSFA and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award), he then decided to do something I assume many authors these days think of doing but almost none actually do: thoroughly revise a novel and re-release it. Tackling Marcher from the opening line, Beckett added, subtracted, and modified the entire text. Using the five additional years of experience, he honed in on the story he had wanted to tell and republished the novel in 2014 (NewCon Press) under the same name. With the original version checking in at roughly 300 pages (isfdb) and the revised version 200 pages, it would seem Beckett did more subtracting than anything. Paring the story down to the minimum needed to really drive the book, Marcher is a dense but brisk read with its finger on the pulse of subject matter rarely seen.
Social work is perhaps the blip furthest from the center of the science fiction radar, but in Marcher Beckett pulls it into the spotlight. Told from a handful of perspectives, the novel represents all sides of the field, from client to case worker, government official to social outlier. Because of this, there are moments the novel feels like the fix-up it is. But given the social themes, it’s easy to argue focusing on certin viewpoints at certain times is natural, even perhaps necessary, for a novel of such import. The setting near-future England, a couple of simple but effective concepts foreground Beckett’s target social issues. In keeping with real-world trends, social deviants are isolated and placed in living communities (ironically) called Social Inclusion Zones. The Zones gated, only the well-behaved are allowed to enter and exit, the remainder kept living apart from ‘normal’ society. Further complicating Zone life are strange little things called seeds, or slips. A few minutes after ingestion, the glowing blue balls shift a person into a parallel world—similar to ours, but different in the details—never to return save by chance and more seeds. Shifters arriving and leaving unexpectedly, this trans-spatial immigration/emigration adds a degree of ambiguity the world could do without when considering shifters can suddenly appear, commit a crime, and shift to a parallel world without local authorities having any hope of knowing which world they shifted to, or apprehending them.
Living in the Zone is Tammy Blows, Tammy Pendant, and a variety of other names. Passed between foster homes but eventually taken back by her negligent mother, the fifteen year old has become a rebel to the world—simply for rebellion’s sake, as is often the case with troubled teens. Needing help, and in fact wanting help but lacking the social skills to get it, the circumstances of her life do not allow for peace or stability, and getting mixed up with a perverted shifter with a bag of seeds is the last thing she needs. Cyril Burkitt is an aging social worker getting ready to retire. His wonderful memory of the history of the people in the Zone endearing him to its residents, his retirement party goes well—until he begins reflecting honestly on the state of the system. Carl Bones is a young man with no outlet for his angst. Lounging around the Zone, getting in fights and causing trouble, trouble eventually comes to him when a cult practicing a narrow interpretation of Norse mythology drags him into their order. Eventually caught up in events seemingly beyond his control, shifting is just the beginning of his worries.
But the central thread of Marcher is the story of Charles Bowen. An immigration officer of the most uncommon variety, his job is to watch for shifters and do his best to mitigate their effect on his world. When called in to meet captured shifters, he tries to get as much information as possible about where they came from to build reference of the parallel worlds, all the while preventing them from slipping unnoticed into Bristol society. Battling his own personal demons, Bowen goes about his work with a rigidity rooted in the belief his job is worthwhile; the troubles of Zone residents appear not to be improving, but his role is fulfilling a necessary social function. The opposed views of the residents and the government, as well as his own, simmering in his head day after day, it takes a social tragedy to shake Bowen from his malaise and bring matters to a head.
Marcher is a subtly scathing remonstrance of England’s social welfare system. The Zone is an obvious staging for what Beckett considers the least ideal living circumstances for people targeted by the system as social deviants and shifting a metaphor for the ease with which immigrants (legal and illegal) and transients and general so easily move in and out of English societies, and the perceived trouble they bring in tow. The title refers not to any sense of cadence or rhythm, rather the idea of man who walks a boundary, protecting what’s within from without, and vice-versa. Bowen that proverbial marcher, Beckett questions what he is guarding, and whether it’s necessary to be guarded. Dovetailing post 9-11 events in Britain into other social problems, it’s obvious Beckett doesn’t see the current solution as functional.
Beckett himself a social worker (or was?), he brings to the page a very realistic feel to the exigencies of life experienced by social workers and those they are trying to help. An insider’s view, Tammy and Carl both feel exactly like people my mother (also a social worker) has worked with, and Charles and Jazamine’s feelings echo her optimistic despair that, in the face of the never ending grind that is the job, something can still be done to make the situation better for them. Expressed best in the novel’s sublimely transcendent ending, Beckett does not resort to melodramatics or false hopes in penning the conclusion of Charles’ story.
Half holding his hands up in despair and half doing what he can with what little he has, Beckett/Bowen go beyond critiquing the social welfare system to offer a remedy to the situation—as minor as it is. Feeling more token than concrete, it is a hopeful first step, rather than be-all end-all fix to the world’s social ills. And the sentiment fits: all that can be done is continue gathering knowledge and extend the hand partway hoping more people will reach out to grasp it. The issues on the table are not black and white, and thankfully Beckett does not attempt to resolve them in similarly simplistic fashion, the denouement reflectively mature.
In the end, Marcher is an intelligent, multi-perspective, science fictional refutation of the English social welfare system that offers something, as small as it is, beyond. Told through the eyes of people both regulating and regulated by the system, shifts between parallel worlds and life inside social inclusion zones are the metaphors underpinning stories of people trying to come to terms with their situations—on all sides of whatever social fence is perceived. I have not read the original version of Marcher, but the revised version possesses bite and purpose. Drawing attention to aspects of society that are being swept under the rug by government but evident to anyone who pays attention to the evolution of Western society, Beckett presents said realities both symbolically and mimetically, criticizes what is being done, ponders the possibilities of what could be done, and offers an olive branch in hopes the lives of immigrants and the under-privileged might someday be better understood and integrated into what authorities perceive as normal society. I’m uncertain the symbolism of the parallel worlds and the real-world social ideals under discussion always run 1:1 and the mirror metaphor is a touch overt, but the message remains clear. Given these issues reach deeper and deeper into society everyday, Marcher is a relevant, timely novel—in both 2008 and 2014 and most likely beyond.