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Tuesday 19 February 2002

Two Novellas: Two New Worlds

The Human Front, Ken MacLeod (PS Publishing, 2001)
A Year in the Linear City, Paul Di Filippo (PS Publishing, 2002)

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

Given its title, Ken MacLeod's The Human Front certainly can't be accused of being coy about its anthropocentric bias. Nevertheless, such a prominent use of the word "human" initially led me to hope that this novella would challenge that last great bastion of the colonialist mindset, anthropocentrism. Alas, I hoped in vain. Nevertheless, there is much to admire in MacLeod's unusual and intriguing alternate history tale.

MacLeod's protagonist is a Scot who reminisces about his life from boyhood to early manhood. He is passionate about politics and often at odds with his father. It is this political passion that allows MacLeod to give free reign to his narrator in exploring the historical divergences between our world and The Human Front's.

The most literal interpretation of the title is that it is also the name of a radical political group of which John, our hero, becomes a member. Much of the story is set in the 1960s and 70s, and this world's version of the Cold War is much more disruptive of quotidian life than ours was. The protagonist is a self-styled leftist, while his father is ostensibly a conservative. MacLeod juggles layers of political struggle here, from Scottish nationalism to global conflicts and alliances between capitalist, fascist, and communist forces. This is where MacLeod's narrative shines the most. MacLeod paints politics not as a linear spectrum but as a complex mosaic against which the facile dichotomies of left and right can only seem stupidly inadequate.

For me, a most resonant example of MacLeod's thoughtful examination of these issues is when John — who normally mouths off (rightfully) against the Western establishment's racism and ethnocentrism — gets embroiled in the racist "ethnic purity" activities of his Human Front cohorts. Being a Québécois, I have for my whole life been confronted with so-called leftists who fail to see the absurd contradiction between their rhetoric of social justice and their fight for ethnic nationalism and its fascist potential. MacLeod explores with sensitivity and intelligence the emotions that rage within such contradictions.

I've already mentioned the narrator's passionate nature, and this is another of the novella's strengths. It's a first-person narrative, and the narrator's spirited intensity drives the story forward with vigour, making this reader turn the pages eagerly.

The cover illustration of this book is of a flying saucer, so I'm not giving too much away when I say that The Human Front is also a flying saucer story. MacLeod has more than a few twists lying in wait when it comes to that aspect of the tale, and nothing is as it seems at first glance. Or at second.

MacLeod is generous with the number of science-fictional ideas he injects into The Human Front, both in terms of alternate history and in the flying saucer subplot. The Human Front lacks none of the sense of wonder that makes the best SF so memorable.

So, highest marks for narrative verve, voice, sense of wonder, political savvy, historical perspective, and genre-bending. Sadly, where this otherwise excellent novella does fail is in dealing with the metaphorical meaning of its title.

There are forces in MacLeod's story whose goal it is to "spread humanity across time and forward through it, on an ever-expanding, widening front." The anthropocentric mission of this other, broader "human front" is never questioned or challenged, even when comparisons with the racist ethnocentrism of its political counterpart beg for it. MacLeod bravely shows the unavoidable ugliness of even the most self-delusionally well-meaning ethnic nationalist agenda, but when his story lays itself wide open for an attack on the anthropocentric worldview that is no more than ethnic nationalism writ large, he compromises his tale's metaphorical and ideological premises. In the last three pages, he cops out on the radical social criticisms he so brilliantly set up and ultimately avoids any radical philosophical stance, falling back on the colonialist worldview that is responsible for the ills he decries so well throughout his book. Ultimately, The Human Front is guilty, in anthropocentric terms, of the same bigoted narrow-mindedness as the eponymous political movement it criticizes. As a result, the title loses its metaphorical bite and comes off as blindly serving an unquestioned ideology.

As a result, a potentially great novella falls short of its considerable ambitions.

Paul Di Filippo novellas are too rare. As excellent as much of his short fiction is, the novella length gives his quirky imagination more room to manoeuvre (recall, for example, his first book, the novella collection The Steampunk Trilogy, in which the author performed some of his most outrageous and memorable genre-bending feats). His new book for PS Publishing's novella program, A Year in the Linear City, is thus very welcome and, I'm happy to report, replete with the qualities that make Di Filippo one of the most interesting of today's SF writers.

In a setting that is reminiscent both of the oppressive infinity of J.G. Ballard's "The Concentration City" and of China Miéville's baroque New Crobuzon (the metropolis of Perdido Street Station), Di Filippo spins a tale of bohemian joie de vivre amidst forces of conformist authority.

Di Filippo's seemingly infinite city, like Ballard's, is serviced by a train whose full circuit no-one seems even able to know. And like Miéville, Di Filippo injects a host of unexplained supernatural elements into his fictional urban planning. His world refuses to be pigeonholed into any category, it just is. Accept me as I am, it says to the reader. It glimmers with cognitive dissonance, a favourite fictional tool of Di Filippo's.

Di Filippo's protagonist Diego, a somewhat transparent stand-in for the author himself, is an author of "Cosmogonic Fiction," that "other worlds stuff" frowned upon by the literary establishment and by publishers (despite the fact that it makes so much money for them). He thrives in a world of musicians and dopers, constantly scribbling story notes with enthusiastic fervour. The sense of community that Diego tries to generate in his interactions with diverse citizens is reminiscent of the bohemian utopian drive behind many stories in his recent collection Strange Trades, such as "Spondulix", "Karuna, Inc.", and "Harlem Nova".

At the heart of A Year in the Linear City is a passionate refusal to bow down to consensus reality. This manifests itself in several ways, to describe the two most prominent: Diego is a dreamer who dreams the impossible dream, who refuses to let conformist pressure destroy his identity and his enjoyment of life; Di Filippo's linear city defies logical explanation, and, to his credit, the author refuses to sacrifice its poetic integrity to satisfy such objections.

As the title implies, this is not a plot-driven tale. Rather, it is an episodic journey following the travails of Diego as he explores his life, his relationships, and his world. A Year in the Linear City is colourful and picaresque, sad and beautiful, joyous and mysterious.

Claude Lalumière — a freelance writer whose criticism has appeared in The Montreal Gazette, The National Post, January Magazine, Black Gate, and others — was a bookseller for 12 years. He's the editor of the upcoming anthology Telling Stories: New English Fiction from Québec (Spring 2002). His website features news and links to his online publications. Publishers: please send review material to 4135 Coloniale, Montreal, QC, Canada, H2W 2C2.

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