The Future is a Celtic Otherworld

April 14, 2013   •   By Caroline McCracken-Flesher


Ken MacLeod

CELTS POPULATE THE galaxy. Whether they got there by warp drive or simply by turning sideways to the sun, red-headed space heroes often seem the breed of the future, for writers with a sentimental attachment to Scottishness routinely fulfill their fantasies light years away. Scottish author Ken MacLeod himself sends Scots into space, but more often as computer code. In Intrusion, however, the travels remain near at hand, in the realm of the possible, and the more disturbing for that.

Scottish Hugh and English Hope live an unremarkable life in an apparently utopic London. Climate change has been stabilized through a literally green technology — Hugh works with New Wood grown into fittable house parts from New Trees which themselves shade the planet as they sequester carbon. Everyone is educated in a Foucaultian critique that should modulate state power and empower the individual. Society, presumably, is the better all round. Certainly, Hope is pregnant with a second child. Social norms and genetic imperatives seem happily met.

But in a world where trees can be engineered into furniture, fetuses can be engineered to be perfect through a simple pill: “the fix.” What is an expectant mother to do? Should Hope ingest the innocuous medicine offered by the health visitor — herself helpfully provided by the state? In this post-Foucaultian world, everyone knows about the workings of power, and the state has engineered itself to support all individuals. Health care is readily available; so is university education. As is the way of dystopias, however, the discourse of rights that may liberate others directly impacts the body of the mother.

In this world full of good intentions and focused on the welfare of its citizens, everyone is educated—so economists turn into house fitters. In a world where educational access is prime, everything is available on the Internet — so it doesn’t matter that books, because they are suffused by second-hand smoke, must be destroyed. And in a world that knows fetuses must not be exposed to workplace toxins, women of child-bearing age are policed for drinking, and pregnant women and mothers are returned to the home.

Hope, for reasons not intellectual, religious, or even emotional does not want to take “the fix.” Moreover, in sheer truthfulness, she won’t claim the protection of “Green Humanism.” She simply doesn’t want to. And of course, the dark side of a socially concerned state immediately stands revealed. In classic Foucaultian terms, the powers of the surveillance state align to coerce her into compliance. The “faith” parents, who are exempt on the basis of their belief, consider her selfish for endangering their exemption by claiming exemption without belief; academics who, at first, find her an interesting study, themselves fall subject to state pressure — even to torture.

So far, so Brave a New World. MacLeod echoes a slew of proto- and feminist writers including Margaret Atwood and Suzette Haden Elgin who have imagined a future returning to the past as it polices the female — a tradition that notably includes major Scottish authors such as Naomi Mitchison. But this is where a fiction bordering on today’s science fact and disturbingly invoked through recent North Dakota rulings on abortion verges into fantasy.

If Hope, in all her ordinariness, resists “the fix,” Hugh, who is doggedly normal, is fleeing the fantastic. Almost in flight from his home on the Scottish Isle of Lewis, where he first found himself talking to people invisible to others and taking an underground passage to a different place, in London Hugh glimpses “quite solid, a stocky man with long red hair and a blue-dyed face… hide pieces wrapped around his feet…. He gave Hugh a sidelong glance a second before he stepped through the wall.” Has Hugh somehow acquired second sight from his Lewis birth? Was he seeing the past? He ponders “a space-time anomaly, a land under the hill, a fairy land, Tir Nan Og…” and looks away.

Scottish literature is replete with stories of otherworlds accessed over sea and under hill — lands where time runs slow or fast, sideways to the sun. Peter Pan’s “Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning” is only the best-known example. And it is not new for these to be lands of future past. George MacDonald and David Lindsay laid broad highways into such otherworlds. But it is MacLeod’s unique conjunction of Celtic otherworld and science just beyond the bound of possibility that allows Hugh to catch hints not of a past or of another world, but of a future and of this world. In a demonstration of why “the fix” might remove not just anomaly but opportunity, MacLeod suggests that Hugh and his son carry a genetic marker that makes them susceptible to a particular kind of light — refracted from days yet to come. In eventually fleeing north, then, Hugh and Hope flee from the present toward a remote island coded as the past, but offering a distinctly Celtic doorway to the future in scientific terms.

And yet, under surveillance from cameras at home and drones in the sky, in the moment of choice between here and there, now and then, Hope turns back. And she takes “the fix.” Lacking the marker for sight, is she incapable of projecting change? Has she succumbed to the gentle, suffocating, horribly normalizing pressure of the state? Or to its tortures? MacLeod makes things much more complicated than that. If Hugh has seen blue men walking through walls and gliding overhead in the low-E technology rebuilt from his failed society, Hope, at the doorway, saw more than the standing water she claimed: “faintly, a ghost image, like a double-exposure, beyond the water and the wall.” She sees an alternate place, a time, a shift. And she recognizes it as a knowledge that her own moment does not deserve. As Hugh realizes that the present is teetering on the brink of technological collapse and hopes for the disruption of the power grid, Hope sees that the future is coming at us — and it needs to come at us faster than we can out-think it. In the world of the present, to comply with the “the fix” is not just to succumb to a kind of moral blindness, but to sacrifice foreknowlege and to commit to a different tomorrow. Today’s people she thinks, “[don’t] deserve to know the future.”

For some readers, MacLeod’s slippage between fantasy and science may annoy; to others, his turn from his technological fascination with the singularity may seem like a loss. But this is an extremely rich book — in concept, in imagination, in ethical challenge. It is also full of glowing images: the man who walks through Hugh’s hall and beyond wears “hide pieces wrapped around his feet and strapped around his calves” that make “a wet sound as his heels came up…. The fur of his sleeveless jacket was beaded with water, his check trousers soaked to the knees, but his hair and his arms were dry.” Where has he been — through the water in the culvert of which we have yet to learn? Or is he passing simultaneously through London now and then in a complex multidimensionality of causes, effects, and possibilities? What is the meaning of his sidelong glance?

Images and expressions come loaded with sensory effect and ethical challenge. The nurse visiting Hope wears not a uniform but the deceptively casual sweats and scrubs favored by today’s supposedly less authoritarian medical professionals — “with a few badges and disreet sensors — cameras, mikes, and sniffers — pinned here and there over the chest.” In this richly imagined world, throw-away lines deepen, color, and at times lighten our experience of a dystopia never completely grey. Hope, for instance, has felt nervous about her society’s kinder gentler authority figures since “the men from Environment had come to take away the Aga.”

Occasionally, such a reference will not translate for a non-British reader (an “Aga” is a large wood or coal-burning stove), but most will. American Anglophiles hooked on Downton Abbey will find it just as rewarding to enter this world with its occasional markers, too, of Scottishness. Hugh the boy, exploring with his friends, kicked through “ash from past muir burnings” before he “dreeped” down into the gully with a door to other times. Hope falls into a “dwam,” gazing at the space in front of her. MacLeod gives us the pleasures of a doubled future and a prose enriched by our own multiplied present

In fact, this book turns out to be inhabited by intrusions of all sorts. Doctors, health visitors, and politicians intrude into patients’ lives; the public inhabits the private until there may be no space that is our own, not even the body. The past directs the present but a perhaps better future, too, intrudes into our moment. And it is this that poses the final ethical challenge to Hope: should the present project itself into the future, no matter how hard our moment may be? Can sideways glimpses become different realities? And if they can, what are we willing to give up in order to achieve a better day? Hope has thought of taking “the fix” as a kind of suicide. Perhaps, MacLeod suggests, we must commit the ultimate intrusion — even give up ourselves — in order not to intrude on a future we need but can only make available for others.

To fans of MacLeod’s more technological and off-planet imaginings, or who prefer their fantasy to remain unfounded in science, let me suggest that the complex dilemmas lurking in this readable and deceptively simple story make it a tale that should, on its own merits, inhabit the future.