Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Ken MacLeod - Intrusion

Ken MacLeod, Intrusion, Orbit, 2012.

Ken MacLeod is the most political, or politically conscious, SF author I read. Politics is fundamentally about what is in the best interest of the individual, what is in the best interest of society (or sub-groups within society), and how to balance these interests.

Intrusion describes a near-future society where the state decides for individuals what is in their best interest. In a commentary on the theme of "health and safety gone mad", the state's concern for children's health has led to women having to wear a monitor ring that records their exposure to smoke and alcohol, both before and during pregnancy. Parents have to install cameras in the home. Everyone's behaviour and interactions are logged and monitored, and certain key words and contacts can get people into trouble.

At the same time, scientific advances known as Synthetic Biology have enabled the creation of a pill that fixes certain genetic problems in the fetus. This has not quite become compulsory, but it is considered the most responsible thing for mothers to do.

The story follows a young couple, Hope and Hugh, who are expecting their second baby. Hope refused to take the fix for her first child, and does not wish to take it for the second child, for reasons that are never quite clear, perhaps even to herself. This is where the balance of interests comes into play. Should an individual be allowed to choose for herself, when society in general has strong opinions about the interest of her children? Hope's MP makes this position explicit:

"The government isn't making choices for anyone. Like I said, it's enabling people to make the choices they would make for themselves if they knew all the consequences of their choices" (Intrusion, p. 149).

This statement can be applied to many situations in our current reality. We have to ask ourselves about the assumptions behind the decisions that are made for us. 

Since MacLeod is really a writer of SF, even when his work appears to be a near-future thriller, there is also an interesting speculative element to the story, which is not explored in as much detail as the dystopian society and remains tantalizing in the end.

As in MacLeod's other novels, I felt there was a certain lack of healthy cynicism in the characters, and in some cases they were, or became, overly honest and trusting. This seems to be a matter of principle for the author. His characters tend to be driven by their ideology or opinions and refuse to compromise or dissemble the way normal people do. This can be admirable, but it sometimes detracts from their realism.

This is an interesting and thought-provoking novel about the meaning of freedom, and I recommend it to a wide range of readers.

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