Much as global austerity has forced cuts to the space programmes of the major nations, diverting funds to more immediate concerns of continuity and survival, so has science fiction, the frequent haunt of cautionary tales, returned from the far to the more immediate future, with authors who once ploughed the stars turning their attention to domestic concerns. So it is that Ken Macleod, who launched his offworld career with The Star Fraction, has in recent years focused on such topics as climate change in The Highway Men and the place of religion in the modern world in The Night Sessions.
The conflict of belief and science is a frequent backdrop for Macleod, who spoke on religion in science fiction at a meeting of the Edinburgh Humanist Society in early 2010, but a more immediate influence on his latest novel, Intrusion, is his time as writer in residence for the Genomics Forum based at the University of Edinburgh.
Hope and Hugh Morrison, proud parents of young Nick, live in the suburbs of London. Despite his qualifications and experience in windfarm engineering, he now works in carpentry (“This is things looking up,” his colleague tells him), whereas a combination of tax incentives and intimidating legislation has made work outside the home uneconomical for any woman in her childbearing years. While working from home has advantages, it can also be stifling, and the aprons Hope once loved have come to symbolise her resentment.
As well as the shift in climate, the world has been changed by major advances in biotechnology. New wood grows twice as fast as traditional trees, drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and the fix guarantees near perfect babies, any prejudicial conditions edited out, the recessive alleles that cause them corrected provided the pill is taken any time before the final trimester.
The fix is not compulsory, and religious exemptions are available, but Hope does not have so specific an objection. While carrying Nick, that was not a problem, but with a new test case looking to trigger a change in public health policy, Hope suddenly finds herself on the wrong side of the social services who choose to make an example of her.
Written with brisk prose, the novel flits back and forth between the near future suburbs of London and Hugh’s childhood in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. While the book touches on issues of the balance between the rights of a parent versus those of the state representing her child, it raises the questions rather than cross examines them. The reason for Hope’s decision is never given, because it does not matter: it is her choice to make.
Surveillance was a major theme in The Execution Channel, and while Intrusion is not as militarised as that story, there are parallels as the characters flee to Scotland in their effort to avoid persecution. The process of guilt by association is all too feasible, as data points stack to a tipping point where intervention by armed police is triggered based on nothing more than a final phone call from the wrong person.
Two classic Wyndham novels are also echoed; the awareness that being different is an offence to the belief system of the community was central to The Chrysalids, and Hugh and Hope’s realisation that there may be more to Nick’s imaginary friend brings to mind the opening scenes of Chocky.
While the springboard of the plot and the situations that arise are drawn from speculative science, the manifestation of the rogue genes that are expressed in Hugh and Nick moves beyond fiction into fantasy, and while that does not affect the outcome, or how the family are perceived by the authorities, it does distract from the otherwise frighteningly plausible future.
The ostensible utopia that Hope and Hugh inhabit is dependent on conformity, and despite the ubiquitous surveillance, the threat of terrorism is real and near, and the police are neither sympathetic nor gentle. Equally disturbing is how easily the moderate beliefs of the other parents at Nick’s school enable them to turn on Hope, whose refusal to take the fix they see as endangering their faith exemptions, a playground confrontation during which the teacher refuses to assist.
The book does occasionally become too clever; scenes with Geena, who takes the Morrison’s case as a crusade, and her academic supervisor may possibly be a parody of self-involved academia. Fortunately, Hope and Hugh are amenable company, determined without being stubborn, optimistic in the face of adversity and bureaucracy, and their relationship is strong and believable. Neither they nor the narrative preach or become shrill, even when circumstances deteriorate.