Saturday, January 25, 2014

Out on Blue Six - Ian McDonald

Out on Blue Six (1989) is one of a number of books by McDonald that have been reissued by Open Road Media recently. Last year I already reviewed his novel The Broken Land (1992), a strange blend of science fiction and magical realism and now the publisher has been kind enough to supply me with a review copy of this book. Out on Blue Six is one of McDonald's early works. It's his second novel after Desolation Road (1988). Like many of his earlier novels there is a distinct flavour of magical realism present in this novel but also many science fiction elements. In fact, in terms of ideas, this may be one of the densest novels he wrote. I get the feeling that this is a love it or hate it book. It's a novel that certainly isn't going to work for everybody.

Imagine a society where pain is illegal and people's lives are arranged according to genetic predisposition and psychological profiles. Choice is not an option, the Compassionate Society watches over your happiness and arranges your life accordingly. Jobs, partners, entertainment, every little detail is looked after and interference is swiftly and thoroughly dealt with. In this designed utopia everybody is forced to be happy and there is no room for dissidents. That doesn't mean there isn't any opposition however. Many people find this life stiffing and the mediocrity of society too much to bear. A group of dissidents is struggling to get society moving again and try to push the Compassionate Society out of stagnation.

My first reaction after finishing the book was 'what the hell was he on when he wrote this?' The book is weird beyond measure really, filled to the brink with all sorts of strange science fictional notions, odd societal models, monstrous medical science and outlandish technology. Walking through Yu, this one vast city humanity is confined to, one wouldn't know where to look. In fact, you need to put your creativity and imagination into overdrive to imagine the city at all.

One thing is clear from the start. McDonald has been inspired by some of the classic dystopian novels. I'd say Orwell's 1984 in particular. The government he describes is oppressive in ways that makes Big Brother look like an amateur. The Ministry of Pain - what a lovely name for such an organisation - insists its tests are flawless and can only be made to admit a mistake every century or so. Its decisions are final and do not appear to be subject to any sort of restraint. Deviants are subjected to intensive reprogramming, essentially destroying entire personalities. All in the name of the greater good, preventing the population form experiencing pain. Sarcasm is counterproductive, satire banned, the ministry's choice of career and partner mandatory. The level of surveillance and censoring is staggering and even more devious than it appears to be in the opening pages of the novel.

The story follows a number of characters that have run afoul of the Ministry. Their acts of resistance have not gone unnoticed and they are forced to go underground. Often quite literally. McDonald takes them to parts of the city rarely seen by ordinary citizens and reveals the origins of the Compassionate Society to them. During their explorations of the dark underside of Yu they also uncover the ultimate threat to the city and humanity itself.

The journeys of the main characters frequently take on a surreal quality when they encounter yet another strange product of Compassionate Society. There are oracles with numerous additional body parts grafted onto them, machine deities, kings ruling over a sentient, genetically engineered raccoon people, and completely vertical societies (in more ways that one.) McDonald rushes through one strange concept after another, rarely taking the time to explore anything in depth. All of this is of course delivered in McDonald's trademark lyrical language. To keep up with him is a challenge in itself.

The main theme of the novel is clear though. Humanity needs to be in control of its own destiny to have a shot at survival. It needs to be free to make its own mistakes and engineer its own triumphs. It needs to be free to choose. Any kind of control over this process, or brake upon it, will result in the extinction of the species. In fact, some of the characters feel that the species is close to the point of no return in this novel. Looking at it from this angle, one interpretation could be that it's novel with a libertarian streak to it. This is not uncommon in science fiction but very atypical for McDonald when you think about it.

If I had to sum up my feelings about this book I guess I'd say that the barrage of ideas and strange cityscapes that McDonald unleashes on the reader goes at the expense of plot and characters. It doesn't help that he divides his attention over several point of view characters either. Sure, each has their motivations to challenge Compassionate Society but McDonald doesn't do that much with them beyond that. I felt that my attention was constantly being redirected to the next technological marvel or biological adaptation, without any of them really getting the attention they deserved. I tend to like books with strong worldbuilding but even for me, McDonald is being too elaborate here.

Out on Blue Six is a marvelous trip though a dystopian future but in the end I think McDonald doesn't manage to put all that creativity in the service of novel as a whole. That being said, there are people who absolutely adore this book. Author Cory Doctorow, who wrote the introduction to this edition, among them. For some readers this novel works, but I suspect it has a quite modest following. Creatively, McDonald pushed the style of his earlier work as far as it would go in this novel. So far in fact, that it feels erratic at times. I would advise people to try some of McDonald's other early work to see if it suits them before tacking this one.

Book Details
Title: Out on Blue Six
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Open Road Media
Pages: 302
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 1989

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