The Highway Men by Ken MacLeod

Reviewed by Farah Mendlesohn

Sandstone Vista is a new imprint "developed for readers who are not used to full-length novels, or for those who simply want to enjoy a 'quick read.'" Ken MacLeod's The Highway Men is 70 pages long in 12 point font. Say sixteen thousand words. In the parlance you and I are used to, it's a novelette.

The Highway Men is a taster book. Those who are already MacLeod fans will enjoy it, but its real potential may be as a juvenile. It's ideal fare if you are looking to tempt the thirteen year old in your family into science fiction because it has those Heinleinian qualities that seduced so many of us, with a peculiarly Scottish twist and a great deal more self-awareness, and it's directed at adults. The requirements of Sandstone Vista for "easy reading" are invisible in either the prose or the plot.

The book is classic MacLeod; Jase, Euan, and Murdo are laggers, government conscripts in a war in which only the university-educated and the highly skilled are used for fighting. The three lads are working class, unskilled labour, sent to lag the pipes of Britain as the Gulf stream shifts, to mend roads and to move equipment around for those with more skills than themselves. One day near Dingwall, a "crusty" lass (think dreadlocks, old sweaters, and a lot of mud) blags a ride, and Jase falls in love. In chasing after his lass he accidentally shops her little commune of survivalists to the authorities, who see only potential terrorists. The tale screwballs into disaster and concludes in an orange flare of burning helicopter and tractor.

The Highway Men contains all of MacLeod's trademark ingredients: an "alternate future" (you can't get there from here, maybe), a bit of libertarian ire delivered wryly through the side of a mouth which still grips an unfashionable cigarette, a love interest delivered with an old-fashioned sweetness, and a belief in the people going about their everyday business in the teeth of authoritarianism. MacLeod's heroes are dogged not flashy. They get caught up by their own rash actions into lifestyles they would never have sought. These are day-by-day resisters not ideological campaigners. They make good models for real life. And finally this really is a novel of the Highlands. Rarely commented upon is what an incredibly vivid writer of landscape and place MacLeod is. Pour yourself a glass of whisky and pull the blankets closer: MacLeod has written a legend for cold winter nights.


Farah Mendlesohn is the editor of Foundation.