Review: Out on Blue Six, Ian McDonald, 1989.
There are several problems with this story of a failed utopia 453 years after “the Break” that brought our world to a close, but the main one was that McDonald’s prose and conceptions are untethered to the historical, cultural, and geographical realities he must extrapolate from in his rightly acclaimed later novels set in various parts of the world like India, Brazil, and Kenya.
The plot follows the adventures of Courtney Hall, cartoonist, whose satiric work runs afoul of the Office of Socially Responsible Literature of the Compassionate Society. She eventually finds herself in an underground kingdom and on a quest to go beyond the wall outside the city. The parallel plot follows Kilimanjaro West, an amnesiac man who shows up in that city and falls in with Kansas Byrne and her guerilla theatre troupe of the Raging Apostles. Of course, he has a destiny.
As is his wont, McDonald samples a bunch of cultural artifacts and mixes them into his story. I detected the Statute of Liberty, Mutant Ninja Turtles, Exorcist the movie, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, Alice in Wonderland, and the movie Brazil.
That’s fine. What’s not fine is McDonald impressionistic prose. Its constant alliteration , repetition, and rhyming wears thin. The symbolic portions of McDonald’s story rest uneasy beside bits of relatively hard and detailed technological and biological speculation.
McDonald saved my opinion of the novel a bit in its last chapter though the answer to the central question, should an engineered society have the happiness of its citizens as its highest end and what are the consequences of that, was common and offered no new perspectives or observations. Or much in the way of plot twists either especially if you’ve read later McDonald novels.
The parts of the novel I liked best were the cutaways to media snippets, government memos, and one-scene characters, even a play, which show life in the Compassionate Society with more vigor and interest than the main plots. Part of that effect is because, in these sections, McDonald drops the annoying style of the rest of the novel.
On the whole, though, I can really only recommend it to McDonald completists.
Expanded and Additional Thoughts (with Spoilers)
That’s the short review fulfilling my obligation to Open Road Media who provided me a review copy of the novel.
It doesn’t cover all my complaints nor does it address my main experience in reading this novel: dislocation. Not temporal dislocation or trouble with dated technology. I’m seldom bothered by reading “dated” science fiction by which I mean dated in featuring obsolete technology. And, actually, the technology here doesn’t feel dated though one is reminded just how much communication technology and social media have altered our lives because their absence here does stand out.
No, I’m talking cultural dating. To be sharp and blunt, I’m struck by how many political and cultural elements of this failed utopia show up in our world and are regarded as good things or tacitly supported by the left side of the political spectrum who, I presume, are a sizeable portion of McDonald’s current admirers. What’s bad in the Compassionate Society is often today’s good.
Citizen fingers twitch in the “nona dolorsa, the hurt-me-not” sign when another person says or does something which hurts them. That rather sounds like calling out todays “microaggressions”.
The very idea that there is an Office of Socially Responsible Literature dedicated to preventing emotional pain to citizens and maximizing happiness sounds something like those who run census checks on Table of Contents to make sure no pain is caused by “exclusion” of certain people. Our privatized bureaus of Socially Responsible Literature also seem to have taboos.
Even in the purportedly adventurous and speculative genre of science fiction, there are taboos noted at least as early as 1992 in Barry N. Malzberg’s essay “Thus Our Words Unspoken” (Amazing Stories, Sept. 1992). One is addressing biological imperatives, the differences and limits imposed on us by our biological strata, the effect of genes and hormones on our behavior as manifested in individuals and culture and politics. It’s a genre manifestation of a greater social belief that believing in biological egalitarianism is a necessary condition to legal equality.
McDonald’s novel sits astride that taboo. The Compassionate Society assigns marital partners, castes, jobs, and clan affiliations, not always appropriately, based on biology and psych tests. The not always appropriate part is, of course, an implicit argument that biology is not destiny.
But there is a bit where the Compassionate Society decides to do what we would call a “gender reassignment” on a minor character. The authorial voice and context does not signal approval. But why not? Haven’t we decided, in some cases, to grant our compassionate society members, our doctors and therapists and psychologists, the authority to push the same remedy in some cases?
As to McDonald’s often annoying prose, let me give you an example that is freighted with symbolism about what caused the Break. It’s of the apocalyptic landscape Courtney Hall and the King of Nebraska (actually the king of a secret, underground city inhabited by intelligent, genetically modified raccoon) in their quest to reach the Wall, part of a Victorian-ageish lost race-quest narrative in the novel:
Oozing. Seeping. Steaming. Rotting. Rainbow sheens of oil. Scabrous patches of radioactive green. Lakes of boiling sulfur, chrome-yellow fumaroles. Rafts of crusted sewage kilometers across floating on soft-slowing lava-sheets of polymer slag. Geysers. Gushers. Fountains of oil. Volcanoes of boiling sludge. Bergs of wax pushed up through the lap and flow of putrid waste. The morning wind kicked sprays of bubbles from frozen waves of foam. Atolls of stringy garbage, bale upon bale upon bale upon bale upon bale upon bale of it. Protruding girders, rust-rotted like decaying rib cages. Low, evil acid-mists hurried from popping mouth-holes and vents. Lightning played with continuous, manic glee. Numinous, luminous aurora ghost lights. Blazing flares of gas bubbles percolating up from beneath, pillars of fire by day and by night by which the eyeless things that lived out there sought and fought each other. Not human things. Not even properly living things. The dregs and lees of biotechnology recombined and nurtured by the sludgelands of the Beyond and given some almost-life by the lightning and the radioactive glow.
It’s hard to imagine such a landscape of geological activity and garbage being the product of any realistic disaster nuclear, environmental, or geological. It’s just an impressionistic garbage can of ills McDonald saw threatening the world in 1989.
There’s also an annoying bit where we discover a great cache of nuclear weapons – left over from the great struggles between the “Democrats and Communists”. Yet, it is implied some sort of nuclear war led to the Break and the Compassionate Society. How did these weapons survive if so many were used? How were they gathered? (We do get a why answer, though.)
There are other science fiction works that deal with the problems and desirability of a society engineered for happiness, dystopias of such a policy implemented: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, James Gunn’s The Joy Makers, even Arthur Herzog’s Make Us Happy. There’s even at least one concept album, Mike Batt’s Zero Zero, which treads that thematic ground.
All are more interesting and “deeper” than McDonald’s. At the end, we just get the banal observation, when Courtney and Kansas and others become a secret cabal reforming the Compassionate Society, that too much perfection and happiness produce stagnation.
In that cabal, we get that old and unconvincing cliché of artists best suited to run the world, also annoying present in the Raging Apostle troupe’s performances.
In his bland smear of a world of no ethnic cultures, no nations, and syncretic religions worshipping new gods (really manifestations of the computers and biologically enhanced masters of the world), McDonald can only offer sexual and creative freedom, space colonization, and the bodily translation of those secret masters as the worthy ends the means of the Compassionate Society didn’t provide. In other words, secular purposes.
Is that enough to keep humanity from stagnating, from going into the box of virtual reality, from unfucking its way into racial extinction, from ceding our chunk of the universe to machines?
Not really questions McDonald addresses. We’ll see if our Compassionate Society does better.