- Paperback: 128 pages
- Publisher: PM PRESS (7 Feb. 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1604863951
- ISBN-13: 978-1604863956
- Product Dimensions: 1.3 x 12.7 x 19 cm
- Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (1 customer review)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 301,220 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Human Front (Outspoken Authors) Paperback – 7 Feb 2013
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As I alluded to above, "The Human Front" is Ken MacLeod's take on alternate history, but anyone who knows MacLeod knows it will be anything but conventional. Actually, it does start off conventionally enough: it's the early 1960's and World War III has been raging with varying degrees of ferocity since 1949. Joe Stalin is a romanticized guerrilla fighter in the model of Che, and the Soviet Union has been beaten down to the point where the allies have installed a government in Petrograd.
Macleod rather cleverly juxtaposes roles in this world; in addition to Stalin, JFK is reviled as a butcher ("Hey, Hey, JFK, how many kids have you killed today?"). By so doing, he obliterates the myths of the past, and rather shrewdly, points out that historical interpretation is largely a function of the circumstances in which one lives, or more simply, a result of how the past turned out. While he is no apologist for Stalin (by any stretch) he creates a plausible reality where he is revered as a pragmatic, dedicated revolutionary, rather than reviled as a butcher. Thus removed from our known context he can create an absurd inversion that nonetheless sheds light on how we view our own heroes.
However, instead of following this believable alternate reality to a logical conclusion, MacLeod throws a curveball in the main character, John Matheson's, enigmatic encounter with one of the U.S.'s strange disc shaped bombers. Although the next twenty pages of narrative are fairly conventional, MacLeod has set the stage, and everything thereafter is tainted by this puzzling mystery.
To go any further would spoil the plot, but suffice it to say that the novel takes numerous bizarre twists before arriving at a fascinating ending. Specifically, unlike most Alternate History, which revels in an outcome discrete from reality, MacLeod attempts to reconcile his world to our own in a manner reminiscent of Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle". The mechanism of this reconciliation is completely original without being outlandish, and the statement made is simple but profound. In essence, MacLeod is arguing that we are all victims of circumstance, that, generally speaking, shaping the world's destiny is beyond the individual. Thus, it is left to each of us to live as best we can, in the hopes that the cumulative result is something better than where we started. At the same time, unlike much Alternate History, (and particularly what one would expect from such a politically conscious writer) MacLeod isn't entirely displeased with the path history has taken, and actually seems to find it better than many of the alternatives.
MacLeod packs more into the seventy-five pages of "The Human Front" than most authors do in novels four times as long. He has blended so many genres, I've lost count, and it's almost unfair to categorize it as Alternate History, in spite of the fact that it won the Sidewise Award for best Short Form Alternate History in 2001. Rather, MacLeod created a true SF hybrid, that evokes the best of many different themes. At the same time, he has written a character driven novel that explores some interesting themes around meaning and purpose. Ultimately, this is a work of literature in which the content far surpasses what one might expect from the length.
Anyway, the Human Front is a good little novella. It starts in an alternate history where the US made contact with the LGM in flying saucers sometime in the 1940s, and the events have unfolded very differently given that hard-line anti-communists now have nearly unkillable assault aircraft.
In the same way that libertarian fiction always ends up with the Good Old American Boys shooting at the Red Coats / UN / New World Order, as best I can tell Trot fiction always ends up with either (a) a cabal in a Scottish pub planning the worker's uprising, and / or (b) the workers having their uprising.
THF is not different - you get exactly what you signed up for.
...but then stuff gets weird. The ending is the part that I liked best, but sadly I can't go into detail without giving away the conclusion. I wish that the ending had stretched out a bit longer. It reminded me of Spider Robinson's early stuff in that way - we spend a whole lot of time not understanding what's going on, and then the moment of resolution - the really good part - goes by in a flash.
Anyway, even with the pay off a bit shorter than I'd like, 4 stars. Read it.
As of 2013, the "chapbook" prices seem appropriate for the moderately serious collector. Anyone else might first try to find a copy of the Dozois collection. Of course, that will not include the essays.
[Note: I do NOT own The Human Front in this format. I hope someone will comment if the version for sale here is an expanded version compared to the one available in Year's Best. That one ran about 40 pages in trade paperback format. I didn't see any differences in the 10 pages or so of the excerpt that I could view here. (which seemed to each contain about half as many words as a trade paperback page.)]