Despite it’s half-century of age, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four still gets a lot of air time in relation to political brainwashing and totalitarianism. An extreme novel, it resorts to violence in converting the mindset of Winston Smith to believe 2+2 = 5, begging the question: what of the majority—the people who support the Party but did not need violence as motivation? Where is the passivity inherent to such socio-political states, the subtlety of the human condition which allows oppression to become the norm? After all, rarely are real-world governments as overtly tyrannical as Big Brother. Jumping in to the gap to paint tyranny in a verisimilitude poignant, sobering, and realistic is Ian R. Macleod’s brilliantly penned The Summer Isles (2005).
A work of alternate history, The Summer Isles sets itself post-WWI in a scenario in which England lost the war. John Arthur, a powerful right-wing politician, has come to power in the aftermath, and begun implementing conservative policies. At the outset of the novel, the aging Griffin Brooke, former teacher of John Arthur, is drowning in self-pity. Hope for a meaningful relationship lost as he wallows in the memories of a long ago affair, he takes a bigger hit when told by his physician that terminal lung cancer will end his life much sooner than expected. An academic career at Oxford running stale and perpetual wariness at revealing his homosexuality taking its toll, Brooke consigns himself to his fate and elects to take a drastic measure in his last days on Earth. The idyll of the summer isles is not far off.
An expansion of an earlier novella of the same name, The Summer Isles brings to the table the character detail, story continuation, and backdrop needed to achieve the thematic and plot wholeness the novella lacked. Macleod taking full advantage of the opportunity to revisit an earlier work, the storyline that results is organic and the concepts of passivity, conservatism, and riding the political bandwagon are given room to breathe and develop. Perhaps most importantly, Macleod ends the novel avoiding any simple dichotomy that might render the preceding material maudlin or trite—a move that seems one of the author’s specialties. No banner of “totalitarianism is evil, and the humans who oppose it are good” is waved. Macleod finds the gray area between, which for story purposes fleshes out Brooke’s character, and for the purpose of relevancy addresses an aspect of the human condition that incites introspection in the reader. Likewise avoiding any contemporary 21st century bullshit about brainwashing and victimhood, the picture painted is one drawing on innate human fear, even as those fears parallel an awareness of the resulting decisions, viewpoints, and actions as they fit within a more universal, transcendent morality.
In the end, The Summer Isles is a superbly written story that utilizes the life and memories of an elderly man to examine an alternative, highly-conservative British government post-WWI and the state of individual humans within said political climate. Though a deeper knowledge of British history adds depth to the novel, it remains wholly possible to enjoy the novel at a personal and conceptual level; Brooke’s story is human, affecting, and reflects Macleod’s thematic aims like a mirror. Carefully crafted, the prose and narrative structure intersect to present a story that moves fluidly between time frames, while cutting to the bone of meaning of oppressive politics—a topic that has gained stronger relevancy in the past few years, no?