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The Agony Column for February 11, 2002

Scotland Exports Some Wild Writers

Commentary by Rick Kleffel

Copyright Rick Kleffel © 2002


I'm not sure what else we're getting from Scotland, but there sure are a bunch of wild writers coming from this bleak and cold country. The three I've most recently read are even getting published in the US, though AS USUAL, our publishers are anywhere from one to three years behind the times. Still, one takes what one can, and I'm happy to see that these guys are getting a chance here. What do they have in common? Well, aside from national heritage and a great sense of humor, precious little.

But the sense of humor in these writers is very unique and worthy of discussion. Paul Johnston begain work on his Quint Dalrymple books back in 1997, with the publication of 'Body Politic', which won the John Creasey Award for the Year's best crime debut. It's a wicked satire channeled through a vicious, hard-boiled mystery. Johnston depicts Edinburgh in the year 2020 as a cruel realization of the the perfect city state as described in Plato's 'The Republic'. The experiment started out with the best of intentions, with 'The Enlightenment' reaching power in Edinburgh as economies collapsed and the 'Drugs Wars' took a heavy toll. With violence and anarchy erupting everywhere, the declaration of an independent city-state seemed like a good idea. But since it's inception, corruption, rot and soul-crushing oppression have become the order of the day. Quintilian Dalrymple, son of one of the Founders, has been cast out of the Guardsmen when he took the murder of his lover a little too personally. He resents the total control of media, consumption, even sex and showers. He was a fan of all forms of the blues before the Enlightenment, but any non-approved forms of music were banned, and he's confined to his contraband cassettes.

Johnston's award Winning debut
Quint goes to Glasgow
Quint goes to Oxford

This setup gives Johnston the ability to constantly and caustically comment on the present, while Quint is only describing his present. It's a great device for political and social satire, and Johnston has done a bang-up job following through in book after book. When things began to look a bit thin, Johnston took the reader to Glasgow in 'The Blood Tree'. The latest novel, 'The House of Dust' takes us on a tour of the high tech dystopia of New Oxford. It's the best novel yet, one that suggests the incredible movies that could be realized from these books. As ever, the savage satirical voice cuts an acid-bathed swathe through our own recent high-tech explosion. In his created world, Johnston can say things about our world in ways that could never otherwise be expressed. Original, hilarious and scathing, his books give an idea of what this new batch of Scottish fiction is all about.

Christopher Brookmyre began his career back in 1996 with 'Quite Ugly One Morning', the hysterical debut of Jack Parlablane, a reporter with a bad attitude and a criminal record. This first novel has just been released stateside, and it's a great way to get into the work of this Scottish humorist. From 'the jobbie on the mantle' to the core of the conspiracy that drives the novel Brookmyre and Parlablane take no prisoners in their effort to rip on England's worst excesses of the 1980's and 1990's. Brookmyre goes for the jugular again and again in 'Country of the Blind' and 'Boiling a Frog', the other Parlablane novels. He does so with in-your-face rants that will evoke fits of laughter and tears in public places, and a phonetic Scottish brogue that will unerringly find its way into the readers own speech patterns, no matter how hard you try to avoid it.

Five fabulous novels by Brookmyre with a decent cover design on both sides of the pond. Collect them all and read the salient passages to annoy your conservative friends! If *you* are conservative, read them to bring up that lagging blood pressure!

Beyond the Parlablane novels, he's offered up some one-offs that do manage to bring round the other great characters the first books. 'Not the End of the World' gives LA the heave-ho with 'The Whore of Babylon' (a porn star) and a Scottish photographer. I hope that it is not too late to mention that Brookmyre's views are decidedly left-wing, and designed to antagonize and annoy a significant part of the population. That makes them no less funny and entertaining to their intended audience. They'd probably provoke laughter from those disinclined to agree with his views, but it'd be a close call whether or not he laughter would arrive before the fit of apoplexy. His latest, 'A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away' is likely to be an equal opportunity offender, as it deals less than delicately with international terrorism. It's no less than hilarious, and when Brookmyre's plot kicks into overdrive, the reader will taken along for the ride like it or not. And, yes, I must admit, I've got to like a book that has as its motto 'do not, under any circumstances, ever fuck wi' the new English teacher.'

Finally, there's Ken Macleod. He's a man who should need little introduction to English readers, as he's been on the SF awards list a couple of times. Humor in science fiction is usually with the one-liner orientation of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. Macleod is nothing like these greats, or anybody else for that matter. Single-handedly leading the charge for socialist politics in science fiction, Macleod has a sly wit that pokes fun with a shotgun blast of wild ideas. He throws out social, political and economic inventions like a mad aeronaut trying to dump ballast from a plummeting balloon. In doing so he manages to soar above the tedium of a world where Star Wars has more shelf space than socialism. His allusions to classic science fiction, and his gleeful inversions of society and sexuality come in rapid-fire exchanges between characters who have easily-identifiable problems with one another, the kind men and women have been having for a million years.

I've put these novels in the best order for you to read them in. That wasn't the order they were released in here in the US.

His first four novels comprised the 'Fall Revolution' sequence, from the world chaos and birth of AI in 'The Star Fraction', through the Philip K. Dick-like landscape of 'The Stone Canal', the clever military shenanigans of 'The Cassini Division' and the elegaic longing for a space-age long gone in 'The Sky Road'. Though they had connections both oblique and concrete, they were never billed as a series. His latest two novels do comprise the beginning of a series of thus-far unspecified length. The 'Engines of Light' story arc begins in 'Cosmonaut Keep', and if the title doesn't bring a smile to your face, the flying saucers, gray aliens, bigfoot, krakens and other less easily definable aliens will. But Macleod likes have it both ways, and in these books he's as usual putting some "big thinks" in his slim volumes. This is a more colorful universe than that of his previous vision,, but no less riotous. 'Dark Light' has some very timely thoughts for us mouth-breathing Americans on the relationship of elections to democracy, and some of the best sexual inversions since Ursula Leguin took a turn into 'The Left Hand of Darkness' (thoughtfully just re-released in paperback).

The "Book One" and "Book Two" things should make reading these in the right order relatively simple.

The news from this column isn't just that Scotland is exporting some of the best humor that's come out of anywhere in quite some time. The best news here is that many of these books are available in the US, in cheap and reliable paperback or trade paperback editions. And once you've gone through these like whirlwind, you can use THE VERY SAME computer you're using to read this column to buy the rest online. No need to recycle kilt jokes from Scotland anymore. There's enough great writing and bad attitude for one and all.



Rick Kleffel