5 March 2012

Review: Intrusion by Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod
ISBN 1841499390
320 pages

I’d really been looking forward to this book, and I wasn't disappointed.

As with MacLeod’s other recent books, “Intrusion” is set in a very credible near-future which initially bears more resemblance to a thriller than to science fiction.  It is, I think, really three books in one.  The opening section is the one described in the blurb.  Mother-to-be Hope faces a dilemma:  whether to take "the fix", a marvel of“syn bio” (the endpoint of systematic genetic engineering) which would "cure" any potential genetic abnormalities of her future child. 

The Fix isn’t compulsory – not exactly – but this is a world where the needs of the foetus are placed so far ahead of those of the mother that most women of childbearing age can’t work (whether pregnant or not) in case they encounter decades old “fourth hand smoke” seeping from the structure of the workplace.  They are strongly encouraged to wear monitor rings, which record any contact with noxious substances, and are banned from drinking alcohol unless provably not pregnant.

Methods of persuasion are therefore employed to encourage Hope to take the Fix.  She would have a get out if she claimed to be religious, but she isn’t.  What should she do?

MacLeod portrays a scary future, a creepy, surveiled world where – for society’s good – AIs trawl one’s phone logs and movement records, putting 2 and 2 together, and no adult would dare be alone with a child unless monitored by cameras.

The second theme develops from this and is summarised in a conversation between postdoc Geena and her supervisor.  Geena is observing a group of Syn Bio engineers for her research into how science is done, but has run into a little trouble and asks for help.  Here the dialogue which this book seems to be having with “Nineteen Eighty Four” becomes overt – even with some phrases of Orwell’s repeated.  But it is also, I think, playing with themes from another dystopia, “Brave New World”. 

In one, control of society is achieved by brutality, surveillance, austerity and miltarisation.  In the other, it’s done through comfort and plenty.  In “Intrusion” there is a world of apparent comfort and plenty with no apparent external threats (apart from a degree of paranoia over foreign insurgents).  In each case, though, the result is the same – total control – and the same question applies: in the words of both Winston Smith and of Geena: “I understand how, but I don’t understand why”.  

In “Nineteen Eighty Four”, the answer is repugnant – power for its own sake – but somehow makes sense.  One can see a way out:  overthrow the Party.  In “Intrusion”, I take MacLeod to be saying that there isn’t a reason.  Nobody actually seeks power.  The control and coercion is something that society is doing to itself, always with the best of intentions.  There is nothing to overthrow, nothing to resist, because everyone is complicit.  “They got me a long time ago”.  That is, to me, actually much scarier and rather more plausible.

The third theme in this book is the SF plot, to which focus turns in the final third, and I won’t say much about it because it would be a shame to give too much away.  It has to do with the past and the future, and perhaps does offer a way out.

Overall this was is a gripping novel, with plenty happening, full of ideas and with some nail biting action.  Recommended.