Intrusion by Ken MacLeod
Reviewed by Dan Hartland
16 July 2012
In a recent piece for the Guardian, the winner of this year's Arthur C. Clarke Award, Jane Rogers, wrote about Brian Aldiss's term "cosy catastrophe." Coined in Aldiss's Billion Year Spree (1973), the term refers to those curious kinds of apocalypse which occasionally occur in genre fiction, in which awful things happen to everyone except the protagonist: the collapse of civilization as holiday. "It is a limited and insulting definition, and Aldiss was using it to put John Wyndham firmly in his place," Rogers argues. "I had attributed a rather different meaning to the term: I had taken it to mean, quite simply, fiction set in a recognizably realistic world, familiar and therefore cosy; a world that is blown apart by a catastrophic event."
This definition is in its own way an equally pointless category, however: it puts Roland Emmerich's 2004 blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow in the same bracket as Rogers's own, rather quieter, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, and I'm uncertain what a reader is to make of such a relationship. That Rogers's top ten "cosy catastrophes" includes not a single work written in the last decade also makes one wonder how familiar the worlds that come to an end in her chosen novels really are: the collapse of a 1950s England (by far best represented amongst her selections) might seem, even for someone born in 1952 like Rogers, like something that has already happened.
In light of this discussion, Ken MacLeod's achievement in his latest novel, Intrusion, comes into even starker relief. It is set in the near future of a United Kingdom which closely resembles that of 2012: Parliament still sits, tabloid news channels still gurgle (and probably still hack telephones), and Britons still live in First World comfort, with the internet, consumer goods, and running water. This is something approaching an optimistic vision of the future, since MacLeod does not pretend that climate change or resource scarcity do not exist; instead, he posits a technology known as syn bio, which has not just halted climate change in its deleterious progress, but produced whole new types of energy and material with which to fuel and manufacture continued, if irrevocably altered, economic development:
One way of putting it is that it’s like genetic engineering, but done by real engineers. Just as civil engineering doesn't mean building a dam by bulldozing soil from the riverbanks into some convenient shallow, syn bio doesn't take whatever happens to be there in the DNA and modify it. Instead, it builds new genes—and other biologically active molecules—from scratch, out of their basic components, and according to a detailed understanding of how they work. (p. 17)
Syn bio came in one sense too late—Britain's climate has been unalterably changed, with colder winters and wet summers, and further adaptations have been necessary: "the other suburbs of London . . . [were] still recovering from a decade of population movement that had begun when Peak Oil and Peak Debt had made suburban living unaffordable" (p. 59). But in most ways Intrusion offers a third, and perhaps more interesting, definition of a cosy catastrophe: the silent collapse, the destruction of a civilization from within, in such a way that those inside the bubble have no sense of what it is they have lost. "Every world that is logically possible feels just like a real world if you're inside it," sighs one character (p. 276).
MacLeod slowly peels the layers from his future, revealing the terrifying depravities of what on the surface at least seems the best kind of future we can begin to expect. ("Ever wonder what global warming is going to feel like?" the environmental activist Bill McKibben tweeted at the end of June. "In its early stages, it feels like this week. This is it. It's underway.") He begins in the novel’s very first line—"Like any responsible father, Hugh Morrison had installed cameras in every room in the flat" (p. 1)—and follows the story of Hugh and his pregnant wife, Hope, through increasingly awful depredations. There is nothing cosy about this world of stop-and-search transmuted into tacit stop-and-torture sessions ("How many people," muses another character, "had been through this and never spoken about it, except to a trauma counsellor?" (p. 115)). Hugh and Hope are both faced with the awful power law now has in this control-freak Britain: "Wave a spud gun around with a political motive, and—bang! You're a terrorist!" Hugh is told (p. 358); "hand-delivering a letter without a stamp," tuts an MP at Hope, "we have to treat that as a terrorist attempt" (p. 151).
There are a few cute references to 1984 in all this—"Hope had only scrappy memories of the book . . . the teacher had explained how it was really all about how the West and China had always been allies against Russia, from the Cold War all the way through to the Warm War" (p. 187)—and for all the cuddliness of MacLeod's dystopia, he is following Orwell in extrapolating from where we are now as way of a warning. There are certainly rather too many sly asides from a grumpy old Scot—in the future, beer will be priced "at a pound a gulp" (p. 26), and swearing will be banned for "creating a hostile environment" (p. 28)—but Intrusion is also a far more serious and engaged consideration of where we might be headed as a culture. MacLeod fears our present penchant for irony and apathy will be our own undoing, and he uses the place of women in society to explore this theme most acutely: glancing at an old Cath Kidston apron, Hope opines, "Her mother's generation . . . had tried on and played dress-up in their grandmothers' aprons as some kind of postmodern fashion statement, and left their daughters to find themselves quite unexpectedly stuck in the things, all wrapped and tied up with a neat bow at the back" (p. 10). Hope recalls, at university, claiming not to be interested in politics; "but politics is interested in you," she is told darkly—and prophetically.
Indeed, politics in Intrusion has done for the individuals who ceased to keep it in check. Pregnant women wear sensors which monitor their every movement, ensuring they do not break the laws against their smoking or drinking; most intrusively, however, they are required to take "the fix," a piece of syn bio ingested as a capsule which irons out the genetic imperfections of unborn children, ensuring they are resilient to disease and yet also, somehow, "unnatural." There are exemptions for women of faith who are against meddling with what they believe to be the work of God, but Hope has no religion—she simply feels wrong to take the fix. Her first child was not exposed to the capsule; by the time of Hope's second pregnancy, however, the state is drawing in on "naturals." So, too, are her fellow women: "you're doing it out of selfishness," sneers one woman of faith at the nursery, who is afraid of her own exemption being withdrawn as punishment for the infractions of individualists without a cause (p. 85). This corporatist philosophy is a perfectly plausible—and in one sense the only viable—response to the effects of climate change as depicted in Intrusion: the rights of the individual to own an Aga cooker balanced against flooded and threatened communities. This de-emphasis of civil liberties—present already in the world, of course—has a dangerous logic, however.
"The economy and the environment are in such a precarious balance," intones an academic MacLeod singles out for particularly brutal satire, "it's like we're riding a unicycle on a tightrope over a flaming abyss while juggling chainsaws. The last thing you want in that situation is some clown bounding along behind you and contesting the saddle. So . . . the question becomes one of maintaining control over the underlying population" (pp. 123-24). In practice, this results, as with MacLeod's women, in the removal of all active choice: "the state," explains Hope's MP as helpfully as he can, "steps in to allow people to make the choices they would have made if they'd had that information. Because these are the really free choices" (p. 147).
This is vicious sophistry, of course, and the plot of MacLeod's novel rests on Hope and Hugh's attempt to escape to a place where they really can make a free choice. Hugh is not perfect—at dinner, he insists that Hope "tease apart the beef chunks into strands and mash them in the potatoes before he deigned to eat them" (p. 217)—but in a novel about conceptual breakthroughs it is perhaps important to feature a character so constituted (particularly when Hope also seems to accept all this without even an awareness that she might complain). This plot, however, proceeds at fits and starts, and structurally MacLeod's novel is an odd bird—its first half follows four main characters, including a woman who finds herself tortured in the back of a police van, and yet its second half collapses inwards first on Hope and Hugh and then, finally, becomes the story only of the man. MacLeod introduces the "sight," a gift possessed by the men of Hugh's ancestral home on the Isle of Lewis, and it becomes clear that the visions experienced by the men of the Hebrides have a substance beyond mere hallucination: one scientist finds evidence that a gene held only by them may enable them to perceive tachyons, a particle which travels faster than light, and thus see the future. Hugh's unborn son, of course, may well carry this gene—and so Hope's fight to refuse the sanding-down of the fix becomes a means of keeping alive a better future.
All this sits as uncomfortably with the theme of banal evil and the tone of the political thriller as the reader might expect: MacLeod doesn’t quite match the smoothness of his thematic treatment with what is the rather bumpy shape of the novel itself. There are one too many swerves—away from established characters, towards suddenly-developing McGuffins—to make for the seamless, better-crafted novel Intrusion might have been. On the other hand, the visions enjoyed by Hugh of pre-industrial, even "barbarian" societies thriving in the Cairngorns, are what make good on Hope's harshly symbolic name: traveling north in Scotland (MacLeod's Caledonian burr shows through in his assumption that the Highlands will remain a bastion of relatively rugged individualism even in the Foucauldian nightmare of this future), Hugh notices "that up near one of these summits there’s a wee stretch of burn that stays frozen all through the year" (p. 240), and small, almost intangible, whispers of a different future are the only chink in Intrusion's world machine. For MacLeod, then, hope lies precisely in collapse. Continuation of society results only in sixty-four day detention or a perversion of the Labour Party, which has taken all its worst authoritarian instincts and crafted an unopposed governing ideology from them. Hope "hated the Party, hated it from the very marrow of her bones. She could look at its banners and badges and see behind them cells of hooded, shackled men" (p. 378); for MacLeod, too, the real hope is with the Party's bogeymen, the "viral terrorism" of the group known as the Naxals, who are bent on the destruction of the world system which not just caused climate change but conspired to stifle the individual in order to survive beyond it.
"The world was what it was," remarks Geena, one of the book's first-half characters whom MacLeod abandons in its second. "Critique had always left her with a vague sense of obligation to find fault with the world. Now she understood it as part of the world, a spinning flywheel that helped keep it upright and rolling along" (p. 128). The cosy catastrophe MacLeod depicts in Intrusion, then, refigures the warnings of the literary dystopia as part of the system it purports to guard against. In truth, the real catastrophe—not the cosy one, but the one to be welcomed, the one that might actually achieve something—is the one that brings the walls tumbling down. This is the collapse of civilization less as holiday, more as permanent, and blessed, emigration. Intrusion is, in this way and despite its difficulties as a novel, far more troubling than many more uncomfortable an apocalypse.