Review: Lie of the Land by Michael F. Russell
Given the state of the country at the moment, it’s perhaps unsurprising that dystopian science fiction is enjoying something of a revival. With Dan Grace’s Winter and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks showing Scotland and Ireland respectively collapsing in on themselves, Michael F. Russell’s Lie of the Land is a welcome and terrifying addition to the conversation.
When Carl, a journalist living in Glasgow under Fascistic state control, receives information and a sample of some new piece of technology, he heads to Inverlair in pursuit of a big scoop. While there SCOPE, a new private sector communications web, is turned on and, whether through design or accident, the resonance causes nationwide pain, nose bleeds and death. Trapped in the village, a “notspot”, a hole in coverage, Carl struggles to settle in a place that may have saved his life but which feels more like a prison camp than a haven. In many ways it’s a classic set up: the reader travels with an outsider into a community and watches as the new dynamic ruptures already fragile relationships.
What follows is a gripping story of rural infighting and bare survivalism. The residents of Inverlair can only assume that everyone else in the country is dead. Loved ones who were away from the village won’t be coming back. It all gets a bit Lord of the Flies when the stronger men band together and rig the rationing system to favour themselves and use violence to get their way. A cast of misfits including drug-growing Terry, home-brew making Hendrik, a group of teenagers who play chicken with the deadly waves encircling the village as a way to break the monotony, and Alec the ‘stalker’, a lonely figure responsible for hunting deer and keeping the village in meat, enliven what could be a depressing scenario.
It’s rural noir in a near-future setting, all the more terrifying for how plausible each speculation is.
One of ‘post-event’ science fiction’s problems is that the most dramatic moment in the story – the ‘event’ that causes the breakdown of society – necessarily comes at the beginning. To combat this, Russell uses an interesting structure, moving back and forth in time to heighten tension and create an air of mystery about what exactly happened in the immediate aftermath of SCOPE being turned on. It is also to his credit that he shows and explains the event, rather than taking the all too common easy way out by having some non-specific catastrophe semi-forgotten in the mists of time. By extrapolating from current technology, science and political trends, Russell has sculpted an end of the world that seems not only plausible, but potentially imminent.
It’s heartening to see this book brought out by a publisher like Polygon and marketed without all the usual trappings, winks and apologies that science fiction often receives from ‘mainstream’ publishing. With writers like Michel Faber recently returning to science fiction, David Mitchell diving into deep fantasy waters and Kazuo Ishiguro writing about a thoroughly real and unallegorical dragon, the ‘M Barrier’ as I call it (named for the M inserted in Iain Banks’s name to distinguish between ‘genre’ and ‘mainstream’ works) is finally breaking down. I hope Polygon will continue to support writing like this.
(Originally published in Gutter issue 15)
Polygon, £12.99, 304pp