Winner of a Prometheus and Sidewise Award, this science fiction novella is a comedic and biting commentary on capitalism and an exploration of technological singularity in a posthuman civilization. As a world war rages on without an emerging victor, the story follows John Matheson, an idealistic teenage Scottish guerilla warrior who must change his tactics and alliances with the arrival of an alien species. This alternate history and poignant political satire flips hero types and expectations, delivering a lively tale of adventure—as dramatic and thought provoking as it is funny. Also included is an interview with the author and two essays that relate his poignant views on social philosophies.
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The Human Front
By Ken MacLeod
PM PressCopyright © 2013 Ken MacLeod
All rights reserved.
THE HUMAN FRONT
Like most people of my generation, I remember exactly where I was on March 17, 1963, the day Stalin died. I was in the waiting-room of my father's surgery, taking advantage of the absence of waiting patients to explore the nicotine-yellowed stacks of Reader's Digests and National Geographics, and to play in a desultory fashion with the gnawed plastic soldiers, broken tin tanks, legless dolls and so forth that formed a disconsolate heap, like an atrocity diorama, in one corner. My father must have been likewise taking advantage of a slack hour towards the end of the day to listen to the wireless. He opened the door so forcefully that I looked up, guiltily, though on this particular occasion I had nothing to be guilty about. His expression alarmed me further, until I realised that the mixed feelings that struggled for control of his features were not directed at me.
Except one. It was with, I now think, a full awareness of the historic significance of the moment, as well as a certain sense of loss, that he told me the news. His voice cracked slightly, in a way I had not heard before.
"The Americans," he said, "have just announced that Stalin has been shot."
"Up against a wall?" I asked, eagerly.
My father frowned at my levity and lit a cigarette.
"No," he said. "Some American soldiers surrounded his headquarters in the Caucasus mountains. After the partisans were almost wiped out they surrendered, but then Stalin made a run for it and the American soldiers shot him in the back."
I almost giggled. Things like this happened in history books and adventure stories, not in real life.
"Does that mean the war is over?" I asked.
"That's a good question, John." He looked at me with a sort of speculative respect. "The Communists will be disheartened by Stalin's death, but they'll go on fighting, I'm afraid."
At that moment there was a knock on the waiting-room door, and my father shooed me out while welcoming his patient in. The afternoon was clear and cold. I mucked about at the back of the house and then climbed up the hill behind it, sat on a boulder and watched the sky. A pair of eagles circled their eyrie on the higher hill opposite, but I didn't let that distract me. After a while my patience was rewarded by the thrilling sight of a V-formation of American bombers high above, flying east. Their circular shapes glinted silver when the sunlight caught them, and shadowed black against the blue.
* * *
The newspapers always arrived on Lewis the day after they were printed, so two days passed before the big black headline of the Daily Express blared STALIN SHOT, and I could read, without fully comprehending, the rejoicing of Beaverbrook, the grave commentary of Cameron, the reminiscent remarks of Churchill, and frown over Burchett's curiously disheartening reports from the front, and smile over the savage raillery of Cummings's cartoon of Stalin in hell, shaking hands with Satan while hiding a knife behind his back.
Obituaries traced his life: from the Tiflis seminary, through the railway yards and oilfields of Baku, the bandit years as Koba, the October Revolution and the Five Year plans, the Purges and the Second World War; his chance absence from the Kremlin during the atomic bombing of Moscow in Operation Dropshot, and his return in old age to the ways and vigour of his youth as a guerrilla leader, rallying Russia's remaining Reds to the protracted war against the Petrograd government; to the contested, gruesome details of his death and the final, bloody touch, the fingerprint identification of his hacked-off hands.
By then I had already had a small aftershock of the revolutionary's death myself, at school on the 18th. Hugh Macdonald, a pugnacious boy of nine or so but still in my class, came up to me in the playground and said: "I bet you're pleased, mac a dochter"
"Pleased about what?"
"About the Yanks killing Stalin, you cac."
"And why should I not be? He was just a murderer."
"He killed Germans."
Hugh looked at me to see if this produced the expected change of mind, and when it didn't he thumped me. I kicked his shin and he ran off bawling, and I got the belt for fighting.
That evening I played about with the dial of my father's wireless, and heard through a howl of atmospherics a man with a posh Sassenach accent reading out eulogies on what the Reds still called Radio Moscow.
The genius and will of Stalin, great architect of the rising world of free humanity, will live forever.
I had no idea what it meant, or how anyone even remotely sane could possibly say it, but it remained in my mind, part of the same puzzle as that unexpected punch.
* * *
My father, Dr. Malcolm Donald Matheson, was a native of the bleak long island. His parents were crofters who had worked hard and scraped by to support him in his medical studies at Glasgow in the 1930s. He had only just graduated when the Second World War broke out. He volunteered for combat duty and was immediately assigned to the Royal Army Medical Corps. Of his war service, mainly in the Far East, he said very little in my hearing. It may have been some wish to pay back something to the community which had supported him which led him to take up his far from lucrative practice in the western parish of Uig, but of sentiment towards that community he had none. He insisted on being addressed by the English form of his name, instead of as "Calum" and I and my siblings were likewise identified: John, James, Margaret, Mary, Alexander — any careless references to Iain, Hamish, Mairead, Mairi or Alasdair met a frown or a mild rebuke. Though a fluent native speaker of Gaelic, he spoke the language only when no other communication was possible — there were, in those days, a number of elderly monoglots, and a much larger number of people who never used the English language for any purpose other than the telling of deliberate lies. There are two explanations, one fanciful and the other realistic, for the latter phenomenon. The fanciful one is that they believed that the Gaelic was the language of heaven (was the Bible not written in it?) and that the Almighty did not hear, or did not understand, the English; or, at the very least, that a lie not told in Gaelic didn't count. The realistic one is that English was the language of the state, and lying in its hearing was indeed legitimate, since the Gaels had heard so many lies from it, all in English.
My mother, Morag, was a Glaswegian of Highland extraction, who had met and married my father after the end of the Second World War and before the beginning of the Third. She, somewhat contrarily, taught herself the Gaelic and used it in all her dealings with the locals, though they always thought her dialect and her accent stuck-up and affected. The thought of her speaking a pure and correct Gaelic in a Glasgow accent is amusing; her neighbours' attitude towards her well-meant efforts less so, being an example of the characteristic Highland inferiority complex so often mistaken for class or national consciousness. The Lewis accent itself is one of the ugliest under heaven, a perpetual weary resentful whine — the Scottish equivalent of Cockney — and the dialect thickly corrupted with English words Gaelicised by the simple expedient of mispronouncing them in the aforementioned accent.
Before marriage she had been a laboratory assistant. After marriage she worked as my father's secretary, possibly for tax reasons, while raising me and my equally demanding brothers and sisters. Like my father, she was a smoker, a whisky-drinker, and an atheist. All of these were, at that time and place, considered quite inappropriate for a woman, but only the first was publicly known. Our non-attendance at any of the three doctrinally indistinguishable but mutually irreconcilable churches the parish supported was explained by the rumour — perhaps arising from my father's humanitarian contribution to the war effort — that the dochter was a Quaker. It was a notion he did nothing to encourage or to dispel. The locals wouldn't have recognised a Quaker if they'd found one in their porridge.
Because of my father's military service and medical connections, he had stroll-in access at the nearby NATO base. This sprawling complex of low, flat-roofed buildings, Nissen huts, and radar arrays disfigured the otherwise sublime headland after which the neighbouring village, Aird, was named. My father occasionally dropped in for cheap goods — big round tins of cigarettes, packs of American nylons for my mother, stacks of chewing-gum for the children, and endless tins of corned beef — at the NAAFI store.
It was thus that I experienced the event which became the second politically significant memory of my childhood, and the only time when my father expressed a doubt about the Western cause. He was, I should explain, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative and unionist, hostile even to the watery socialism of the Labour Party, but he would have died sooner than vote for the Conservative and Unionist Party. "The Tories took our land," he once spat, by way of explanation, before slamming the door in the face of a rare, hopeless canvasser. He showed less emotion at Churchill's death than he did at Stalin's. So, like most of our neighbours, he was a Liberal. The Liberals had, in their wishy-washy Liberal way, decried the Clearances, and the Highlanders have loyally returned them to Parliament ever since.
Why the Highlanders nurse a grievance over the Clearances was a mystery to me at the time, and still is. In no land in the world is the disproportion between natural attraction and sentimental attachment more extreme, except possibly Poland and Palestine. Expelled from their sodden Sinai to Canada and New Zealand the dispossessed crofters flourished, and those who remained behind had at last enough land to feed themselves, but their descendants still talk as if they'd been put on cattle trucks to Irkutsk.
It was my habit, when I had nothing better to do on a Saturday, to accompany my father on his rounds. I did not, of course, attend his consultations, but I would either wait in the car or brave the collies who'd press their fore-paws on my shoulders and bark in my face, to the inevitable accompaniment of cries of "Och, he's just being friendly," and make my way through mud and cow-dung to the hospitality of black tea in the black houses, and the fussing of immense mothers girt in aprons and shod in wellingtons.
We'd visited an old man in Aird that morning in the summer of '63, and my father turned the Hillman off the main road and up to the NATO base. Gannets dropped like dive-bombs in the choppy sea of the bay below the headland's cliffs, and black on the Atlantic horizon the radar turned. Though militarily significant — Lewis commands a wide sweep of the North Atlantic, and Tupolev's deep-shelter factories in the Urals were turning out longrange jet bombers at a rate of about one a month, well above attrition — security was light. A nod to the squaddie on the gate, and we were through.
My father casually pulled up in the officers' carpark outside the NAAFI and we hopped out. He was just locking the door when an alarm shrieked. Men in blue uniforms were suddenly rushing about and pointing out to sea. Other men, in white helmets and webbing, were running to greater purpose. Somewhere a fire-engine and an ambulance joined in the clamour.
I spotted the incoming bomber before my father did, maybe two miles out.
"There — there it is!"
"It's low —"
Barely above the sea, flashing reflected sunlight as it yawed and wobbled, trailing smoke, the bomber limped in. On the wide concrete apron in front of us a team frantically pushed and dragged a big Wessex helicopter to the perimeter, while one man stood waving what looked like outsize ping-pong bats. The bomber just cleared the top of the cliff, skimmed the grass — I could see the plants bend beneath it, though no blast of air came from it — and with a screaming scrape and a shower of sparks it hit the concrete and slithered to a halt about a hundred yards from where we stood.
It was perhaps fifty feet in diameter, ten feet thick at the hub. Smoke poured from a ragged nick in its edge. The ambulance and fire-engine rushed up and stopped in a squeal of brakes, their crews leaping out just as a hatch opened on the bomber's upper side. More smoke puffed forth, but nothing else emerged. A couple of firemen, lugging fire-extinguishers, leapt on the sloping surface and dropped inside. Others hosed the rent in the hull.
My father ran forward, shouting "I'm a doctor!" and I ran after him. The outstretched arm of one of the men in white helmets brought my father up short. After a moment of altercation, he was allowed to go on, while I struggled against a firm but not unfriendly grip on my shoulder. The man's armband read "Military Police." At that moment I was about ten yards from the bomber, close enough to see the rivets in its steel hull.
Close enough to see the body which the firemen lifted out, and which the ambulancemen laid on a stretcher and ran with, my father close behind, into the nearest building. It was wearing a close-fitting silvery flying-suit, and a visored helmet. One leg was crooked at a bad angle. That was not what shot me through with a thrill of horror. It was the body of a child, no taller than my five-year-old sister Margaret. The large helmet made its proportions even more child-like.
A moment later I was turned around and hustled away. The military policeman almost pushed me back into the car, told me to wait there, and shut me up with a stick of chewing-gum before he hurried off. Everybody else who'd come at all close to the craft was being rounded up into a huddle guarded by the military policemen and being lectured by a couple of men who I guessed were civilians, if their snap-brimmed hats, dark glasses and black suits were anything to go by. They reminded me of American detectives in comics. I wondered excitedly if they carried guns in shoulder holsters.
After about fifteen minutes my father came out of the building and walked over to the car. One of the civilians intercepted him. They talked for a few minutes, leaning towards each other, their faces close together, one or other of them shaking their fingers, pointing and jabbing. Each of them glanced over at me several times. Although I had the side window wound down, I couldn't hear what they were saying. Eventually my father turned on his heel and stalked over to the car, while the other man stood looking after him. As my father opened the car door the black-suited civilian shook his head a little, then rejoined his colleague as the small crowd dispersed.
A knot of military policemen formed up at the building's doorway, and surrounded two stretcher-bearers as they hurried to the Wessex. There was only the briefest glimpse of the stretcher as it was passed inside, moments before it took off and headed out to sea on a southerly course.
My father's face was pale and his hand shook as he took his hip-flask from the glove compartment. The top squeaked as he unscrewed it, the flask gurgled as he drank it dry.
"Leave the window down, John," he said as he turned the key and pushed the starter. "I need a cigarette."
He lit up, fumbling, then engaged the gears and the car moved off with a lurch. As we passed the soldier on the gate my father gave him a wave that was almost a salute.
"What sort of people will that poor laddie be fighting for?" he asked me, or himself. His knuckles were white on the wheel. The swerve on to the main road threw me against the door. He didn't notice.
"Monsters," he said. "Monsters."
I sat up straight again, rubbing my shoulder.
"It's awful to use wee children to fly bombers," I said.
He looked across at me sharply, then turned his attention back to the single-track road.
"Is that what you saw?" he murmured. "Well, John, we were told very firmly that the pilot was a midget, you know, a dwarf, and that this is a secret. If the enemy knew that, they would know something they shouldn't know about our bombers. About how much weight they can carry, or something like that."
I squirmed on the plastic leather, swinging my legs as though I needed to pee. I had read about dwarfs and midgets in Look and Learn. They were not like in fairy stories.
"But that's not true," I said. "That wasn't a dwarf, the pro — the portions —"
"The proportions were wrong. I mean, they were right — they were ordinary. The pilot was a child, wasn't he?"
The car swerved slightly, then steadied.
"Listen, John," my father said. "Whatever the pilot is, neither of us is supposed to talk about it, and we'll get into big trouble if we do. So if you're sure it was a child you saw, I'm not going to argue with you. And if the Air Force say the pilot is a midget, I'm not going to argue with them, either. I set and splinted the leg of that, that" — he hesitated, waving a hand dangerously off the wheel — "craitur beag 'us bochd — of the poor wee thing, I should say, and that's all I know of it."
I was as startled by his lapse into the Gaelic as by the uncertainty and ambiguity of his reference to the pilot, and I thought it wise to keep quiet about the whole subject. But he didn't, not quite yet.
"Not a word about it, to anyone," he said. "Not to your mother, your brothers and sisters, your friends, anyone. Not a word. Promise me?"
"All right," I said. I was young enough to feel that it was more exciting to keep a secret than to tell one.
The following day was a Sunday, and although it meant nothing to us but a day off school we had to conform to local custom by not playing outside. It was a sweltering hell of boredom, relieved only by the breath of air from the open back door and the arrival at the front door of two men in black suits, who weren't ministers. My father escorted them politely into his surgery. The waiting-room door (I found, on a cautious test) was locked. They did not stay long; but the following morning on the way out to catch the van to school I overheard my mother telephoning around to postpone the day's appointments, and noticed a freshly emptied whisky bottle on the trash.
* * *
A couple of years later, when I was ten, my father sold his practice to a younger, less financially straitened and more idealistic doctor (a Nationalist, to my father's private disgust) and took up a practice in Greenock, an industrial town on the Firth of Clyde. Our flitting was exciting, our arrival more so. It was another world. In the mid-1960s the Clyde was booming, its shipyards producing naval and civilian vessels in almost equal proportion, its harbours crowded with British and American warships, the Royal Ordnance Factory at Bishopton working around the clock. Greenock, as always, flourished from the employment opportunities upriver — beginning with the yards and docks of the adjacent town of Port Glasgow — and from its own industries, mainly the processing of colonial sugar, jute and tobacco. The pollution from the factories and refineries was light, but fumes from the heavy vehicular traffic that serviced them may well explain the high incidence of lung cancer in the area. (My father's death, though outside the purview of the present narrative, may also be so accounted.) Besides these traditional industries, a huge IBM factory had recently opened (the ceremonial ribbon cut by Sir Alan Turing himself) in the Kip Valley behind the town.
Excerpted from The Human Front by Ken MacLeod. Copyright © 2013 Ken MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsThe Human Front,
"Other Deviations: The Human Front Exposed",
"The Future Will Happen Here, Too",
"Working the Wet End" Outspoken Interview with Ken MacLeod,
About the Author,
What People are Saying About This
"MacLeod is a fiercely intelligent, prodigiously well-read author who manages to fill his books with big issues without weighing them down." —Salon.com
"MacLeod's novels are fast, funny, and sophisticated. There can never be enough books like these." —Kim Stanley Robinson, author, Mars trilogy
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
W A R N I N G ! BE ADVISED: THIS IS NOT THE KEN MACLEOD BOOK, it is instead a mislabeled ?romance? W A R N I N G ! ~Munchkin 09.25.2014