Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Broken Land - Ian McDonald

I've approached Ian McDonald's work completely out of the order of publication, staring with his short story collection Cyberabad Days in 2009. I've read all of his novels from River of Gods (2004) onwards by now but of his earlier work I've only read his debut Desolation Road (1988). Open Road Media is releasing four of McDonald's earlier works as e-books and were kind enough to supply me with a copy of The Broken Land (1992). This novel is one of several books where the American publisher picked a different title than the British one. In the UK the book was released as Hearts, Hands and Voices. I have no idea which title the author prefers. Either works well for me, although the more cryptic UK title might suit the style of the novel better.

In a far future humanity has discovered how to directly manipulate genetic material. This has lead to a revolution in society. Through genetics one can create just about every life form imaginable, catering to every need. It could be a paradise but a deep religious divide runs through the crumbling empire Mathembe Fileli calls home. The tension between Proclaimers and Confessors is rising and when the idyllic village of Chepsenyt is razed through the ground by the empire's forces a civil war erupts. Mathembe looses everything she ever knew and is separated from her family. A nightmarish trek though a war torn country ensues.

McDonald does not go easy on the reader in this book. It is one of the more challenging novels I've read this year. His style has changed a bit over the years from the equal parts magical realism and science fiction in Desolation Road to the more accessible plot and prose of The Dervish House. This novel is definitely closer in style to his debut. It is very poetic, at times surreal and includes lots and lots of strange imagery. All of which is made even more interesting by the fact that Mathembe doesn't speak. There are still dialogues in the novel of course, she does communicate, but they are not normal conversations. They include lots of non-verbal communication and people only partly understanding what she is trying to communicate.

The setting has an African flavour to it but the story is essentially an analogy of the political situation in Northern Ireland. McDonald has lived most of his life in Belfast, including the most intense years of the Troubles and this has shaped his writing. He sees the conflict in Northern Ireland as a post-colonial one and there is definitely something to be said for that. The story contains a religious conflict of course, and a once great empire trying to hold on to its last possessions,  but also the suppression of a language and the messy situation where militias from both sides enter into the fray. Ethnic cleansing, large numbers of displaced people, executions, destruction of property and every other form of terror imaginable show up in the novel. Both sides even go so far as to claim there is a genetic basis for the religious differences that separate them.

To add to the magical atmosphere of the book, McDonald has created a vision of future technology that is as strange as one may hope to encounter in science fiction. Almost all of it is based on living organic tissue. Construction, transportation, and communication are all aided by this new technology, resulting in some creatures and tools that are quite hard to wrap your head around. Even the afterlife The idea of being taken up in a vast organic matrix is an appealing one. Mathembe is very good at manipulating organic matter, something that comes in handy more than once.

Where most science fiction novels assume that technological progress will result in a more rational world where religion becomes less important or will completely disappear, McDonald's future shows a fusion of the messy organic science and religion. There is no sense that science will one day be able to explain everything or that the divine necessarily conflicts with science. They are seamlessly fused in the minds of some people, although the horrors of war do make some characters question their view of the world.

This story has a great many tragic elements in it, Mathembe deals with loss after loss and yet there is always hope an determination to drive her on. Hope of being reunited with her family, hope that she can keep her brother save, that she can drag her mother out of depression, that she can find her father. There is always the sense that no matter their religion, people are basically decent human beings and that differences can be overcome, that maybe the next refugee camp will hold what Mathembe is looking for. Silent, stubborn and resourceful, Mathembe is a protagonist you can feel for. She is one of the more fascinating characters I;ve come across in McDonald's books.

I've been thinking about how good a read this novel really is and I can't seem to make up my mind about it. The story is gripping and Mathembe a great character. I also liked the prose and McDonald's vision of what genetic research but I do think that for some readers the prose in particular is too much of a good thing. Some passages needed several rereads to be able to figure out what the author was trying to communicate, making the The Broken Land a slow read. Readers of main stream fiction might enjoy the prose but it is probably too much of a science fiction novel to have a great appeal for that market. It probably isn't a novel for a large audience. It probably takes a very specific kind of reader to fully enjoy what McDonald was trying to do here. I think I may lake a bit of patience with his prose. The poetic quality of his writing is still present in his later novels but reigned in a bit more. It is a matter of preference but for me, that later style works better.  Nevertheless, if you are looking for a science fiction novel that is challenging and offers both interesting concepts and a mastery of language, this novel would be a good choice. Just take your time reading it.

Book Details
Title: The Broken Land
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Open Road Media
Pages: 336
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 1992


  1. Great review. Having read none of it, I'm very curious about the middle section of McDonald's oeuvre, and this review makes me quite eager to dig in.

    It's good to know Open Media is republishing a portion of McDonald's back catalog. He is a writer that deserves far more attention than he receives. Perhaps it is that more "poetic" prose which has limited his success? While I prefer such a style, I'm aware I am in the minority.

    Do you happen to know the other McDonald titles Open Media is releasing?

  2. I think his prose probably has held back sales some yes. More than a few people find it hard to read even in the more recent novels.

    Besides this one Open Road Media will release Scissor Cut Paper Wrap Stone, Sacrifice of Fools and King of Morning, Queen of Day. I think those were all written in the 1990s.