Saturday, October 20, 2018

Review of Intrusion by Ken Macleod

Dystopia has become one of the most ubiquitously utilized motifs in fiction. From science fiction to fantasy to mainstream fiction to literary fiction (and all the layers and permutations of those fuzzy sets), dark societies far removed or an eye-blink away from our own are being imagined left and right. While for most books dystopia is a device feeding drama or atmosphere, in others it is genuine thought experimentation looking to examine and analyze humanity from a hypothetical perspective to gain new insight. Playing with the full spectrum of “liberal” in a near-future Britain where genetic engineering allows for children to be born healthy as long as a pill is ingested during pregnancy, Ken Macleod’s 2012 Intrusion falls firmly into the category of the latter and makes for what is certainly one of the most unique dystopias ever written.

Hope and Hugh Morrison are just another couple living in near-future London, trying to make ends meet as best they can. Hugh has advanced science degrees but can find no employment, and spends his days, satisfied enough, as a joiner and carpenter. Likewise possessing advanced degrees yet working a low-end job (a service desk representative for Chinese company), Hope works the hours she can while fitting in their flat’s needs, including picking up and bringing their son Nick to the local school—a task the couple learn will soon be doubled as Hope is pregnant. But they have much bigger problems with the pregnancy. A law in effect that forces all pregnant women to take “the fix” (a pill ensuring babies are born genetically sound), Hope and Hugh don’t want to subject their unborn child to the small capsule for personal reasons yet have no legal recourse; the law leaves no room for exceptions save faith-based reasons, and the couple do not practice religion. As the days and weeks move on, mounting pressure from family agencies and the medical establishment push Hope to take the pill. Yet she doesn’t, meaning eventually something must give.

Macleod clearly wrote Intrusion with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four floating in the shadows of his imagination (the climax in particular is very tributary). But where Orwell always presented Big Brother as a mysterious, menacing, abstract entity, in Intrusion the technology backing the surveillance apparatus is laid bare and the people behind it are clearly defined. Given how realistic the technology is, not to mention how believable the intentions are for its use, Macleod’s vision comes across as more tangible, and ultimately scarier for the imminence. Another way of putting that is, Big Brother is something that could happen, whereas the rudiments of the surveillance society of Intrusion are already in place, and being expanded. I’m not up to date on the state of gene research (it feels the most speculative aspect of the novel), nevertheless, should such technology be imminently available, Macleod’s vision becomes all the more impactful.

Going further into said technological details, as of 2018 there is a dearth of devices and technology capturing and extrapolating upon data from our daily lives. Web pages to GPS locations visited, computer keystrokes to app usage, our time on Earth can be quantified in interesting ways. To this Macleod adds the technology for eye tracking (soon to be available on the common market) and the virtual overlays rendered via glasses or lens common to many future visions. And lastly Macleod imagines a ring that people wear as a continual health monitor, which paves the way for such legal actions as: pregnant women who smoke or drink can be formally charged with endangerment of their unborn. As stated, it’s not fantastical technology; it’s here, or almost here, today. Which leads to:

The intersection of politics and technology in Intrusion is where the novel generates the most interest. The basic premise of Macleod’s imagined society is that where and when government can forbid activities and things potentially harmful to humanity, they do. Smoking, drinking, guns, human-controlled vehicles, etc., etc., these and other things have been outlawed under the banner of freedom. The pill—the genetic corrective—fits right into this: we all want to be healthy, right? So why not enforce a pill that ensures at least genetic health? Overall, it is without a doubt one of the most interesting premises I’ve read in a novel. I say this because, typically an author (e.g. Orwell or Atwood) will imagine a scenario wherein some commonly held beneficial aspect of society (e.g. free speech or gender equality) is removed. With Intrusion, it’s the opposite: elements of society typically thought of as negative are legally removed. To be brief, it leads to some very interesting questions regarding individual liberty in a government so left it has become right.

From the broader political perspective in Intrusion, a Che Guevara, ISIS, fill-in-the-blank-with-your-own-rebel-group-here community calling itself NAXAL forms the primary rival for the liberal Western governments in place; they are the “Red Threat”. Macleod naturally quite savvy in his deployment of NAXAL in the story, it’s nice to see a view beyond conspiracy theories and black & white political dichotomies, something the novel’s conclusion ties up nicely.

There is one element of Intrusion that doesn’t quite fit, however, and to my mind was unnecessary. I would need to re-read the novel to be 100% certain, but a certain “second sight”—something with one foot on each side of the real/fantastical border—exists in the story, and in fact plays a major role in its development. Similar to how Macleod played with the “magic” of UFOs in Descent, Intrusion uses a commonly held, if not traditional idea to add complexity to a story that does not seem to require as such, i.e. is otherwise extremely realistic in approach. Instead it feels “fantastical” for fantastical’s sake, and plays a role that could easily have been occupied by something (more?) real, or avoided altogether.

Moreover, I remain uncertain Macleod always capitalizes on the elements of his novel in the most complete fashion (i.e. as Orwell or Atwood do). There is a certain looseness that never allows the narrative to feel as though its concepts interplay within a tight, well thought out package. Some of the technology introduced, for example, doesn’t feel fully unpacked, and could have influenced the story in ways not described. It should be clearly stated, however, this looseness in no way prevents the story from setting the reader’s brain’s gears turning, going through the possible meanings and iterations of the imagined setting and how it relates to politics in the West. In fact, Macleod has left the gate wide open; there is a huge amount of room for commentary and analysis on how the book relates to the current state of the Left and Right.

There are some novels that prick a vein of thought; Intrusion is a thorn bush—in a good way. From the usage of emergent technologies to the very realistic extrapolations upon it, the intentions of left-leaning government to the meaning of individual freedom, Macleod tackles a huge amount of contemporarily relevant subject matter that provokes intelligent rumination. Is this the best of Macleod’s books as of 2018? For the socio-political-technological relevancy, I would say, yes. (Though, The Execution Channel is a solid second.) For plot and narrative cohesion, no. (The Fall Revolution novels provide better.) And for representation of humanity and prose, I daresay Descent is his best. In other words Mr. Macleod, still waiting for you to write your magnum opus, but Intrusion is damn good…

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