Arthur C Clarke Award #4: ‘Intrusion’ by Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod presents a vision of a near-future world in which many of our freedoms are rolled back in the cause of child protection, specifically the protection of the unborn foetus. For starters, smoking and drinking are illegal in pregnancy. Employers must prove their workplaces pose zero risk to pregnant women and as a result many women (pregnant or otherwise) operate from home where the legal restrictions are looser. And then there’s ‘the fix’ – single-dose medication (produced by SynBioTech) that women are obliged to take during pregnancy to mend any dodgy sections of DNA.

But Hope Morrison, a resident of Islington in North London, didn’t take the fix before her son Nick was born, and she doesn’t want to take it now that she’s pregnant again. Her husband Hugh, brought up on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis, is willing to go along with her wishes. However, the health service is becoming more dogmatic. Doctors and health visitors are willing to compile surveillance evidence from other sources to threaten Hope. Her occasional contacts with supposed troublemakers are nudging Hope’s data profile towards a tipping point – one that would label her as unsuitable for parenting.

The authorities are also using the threat of terrorism as the validation for widespread surveillance. It all adds up to a situation where a citizen’s every move, every contact, every minor infringement is known to the police. Police stop-and-search is extended to stop-and-torture, followed by free trauma counselling. Hmm…

Events spiral out of control and the Morrison family retreats to the Isle of Lewis. Early in the novel, we learn that Hugh – along with other people on the isle – experiences second-sight. And this adds a second thread to MacLeod’s tale.

MacLeod doesn’t talk down to his readers; he expects them to keep up with his excursions into genetics, and the specific research interests of Geena, a post-doc student operating within SynBioTech.

It’s a chilling and cautionary dystopian tale that deals primarily with the topical issue of surveillance. And it will appeal to anyone who fights against the health and safety culture.

I have some issues with the novel. I am uncomfortable with the mix of straightforward dystopian fiction with fantasy. Hugh’s second-sight takes the reader into the realm of fantasy and it sits awkwardly within the novel.

Some of the writing is decidedly lumpy. I had to re-read many sentences before I could grasp their sense.

And at the start of Intrusion I feel Ken MacLeod throws too much back-story at the reader. Not subtle.

So, I’ve two more books to read from the Arthur C Clarke shortlist before the winner is announced on 1 May. I’m cutting it fine but I reckon it’s do-able.

Next: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. I’m expecting something a bit different from Heller – he’s a travel writer and The Dog Stars is his first novel.

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