Toward the end of Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia Winter, the main character escapes certain punishment for murder by entering the Wheel of Kharnabar. A massive, single gear turning underground, it has only one entrance/exit. People who enter the Wheel must wait ten years for one revolution of the gear to bring them back to the entrance again. A decade a long time, the experience brings the novel’s protagonist into a different plane of mind that, once he exits, allows him to live his life with new focus. Less planetary adventure and more near-future noir, Ian Macleod’s debut novel The Great Wheel (1997) works with similar symbolism to bring about personal resolution involving the guilt of living in post-colonial Europe.
When guilt is a key subject, no better main character may be than a priest. In The Great Wheel his name is John, and he has been assigned by the presbytery in England for a year to the Endless City, a third-world ghetto sprawling along the north coast of Africa. A European and therefore privileged, John receives medical treatments protecting him against the variety of diseases and ailments that riddle the people who come to his church seeking help. Seeing the suffering and waste on a daily basis, the simple medicines John dispenses do not have a larger effect, and so when noticing a pattern in the symptoms suffered by people who chew a narcotic leaf called koiyl, he begins to dig further. Meeting a local named Laura, the two travel into the wastelands of Africa trying to get to the source of the contaminated koiyl. Though the locals cast a wary eye on the pair as they travel, it’s after their return, however, that the troubles of John’s life come crashing down and the circumstances become too big to handle. Or at least John perceives…
A futuristic character study with scatterings of gritty, cyberpunk-ish tropes, The Great Wheel presents a 22 nd century world wherein the gap between the haves and have nots has only widened. The quality of life in Europe far outpacing that of the Endless City, Macleod has trouble escaping the simple trappings of such a dichotomy but manages to escape through the personalization of John and the people around him. While John too is something of a balance between stereotype (priest unsure of his spirituality in a bleak world, blah, blah, blah) and reality (I dare anyone to visit India and not come away with a changed worldview), the events of his life, his family situation, and the ultimate humanity underpinning his decisions swing the needle in favor of ‘realistic’—which is significant compared to the majority of genre characterization on the market. With the guilt of colonialism hanging over the narrative, it would have been easy for Macleod to descend into such maudlin sentiment as“Won’t somebody please think of the starving children,” but thanks to John, the story retains its relevancy—the title is still a bit pretentious, but the content far less so.
While Macleod would later go on to perfect what I have no better expression for than ‘taking-the-third-option ending’ (i.e. the ability to transcend tragic/comic denouements), The Great Wheel also hints at gray. John’s medical quest is resolved in indirect fashion (i.e. he gets what he wants but perhaps not following the paths he initially intended), his relationship with Laura is both open and closed, and his personal state of affairs achieves a different plane than that which had been tugging at his sleeves and pant legs, threatening to drag him down the entire length of the novel.
In the end, The Great Wheel is a solid debut novel that addresses some familiar post-colonial issues (income gap, availability of medical assistance, culture clash, first vs. third world, etc.) yet is not so familiar in genre for the relative depth of the main character. A man living in a foreign land trying to find himself, John’s priest-at-odds personality is an easy enough character to imagine, but is expanded via details of his home life and reactions to the developments there. Publisher’s Weekly calls the novel “a bridge between Huxley's Brave New World and Frank Herbert's Dune,” to which I would strongly disagree. Much more cyberpunk (i.e. gritty near future possibility) than the fantastical space opera of Dune, and more a character study than ideological display (as with Brave New World), I would offer the novel as a cross between Keith Roberts’ Pavane and William Gibson’s Neuromancer for its personal and political.