Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Missing Man

Katherine MacLean Missing Man (1975)
Just as Asimov had his robots and Philip K. Dick had his ontology, Katherine MacLean's writing is distinguished by her interest in systems theory, organising principles, mass psychology and so on; which may sound a little dry, but she writes beautifully, and with such poetry that we tend to forget when the book has a painting of a robot on the cover. Unfortunately though, her name remains relatively obscure, possibly because she wrote short stories to the exclusion of anything else and has thus remained more or less confined to the ghetto of science-fiction magazine publishing. Even the novel length Missing Man is expanded from a couple of related short stories.

Missing Man examines a society with many familiar problems through the understanding of a psychic detective of sorts, George Sanford whose telepathy allows him insight into the thoughts of those who hold very different views to his own. His world, somewhat conveniently, is divided into highly polarised communities, and many of them set very much against the common good of society as a whole, most notably a displaced Arab community and another which seems to be populated by teenagers. It was the Arab community with which I had the most trouble, given the resemblance of this detail to the sort of thing I presume one might expect to find in the white nationalist science-fiction of persons such as H.A. Covington. MacLean's displaced Islamic group are angry, religious, and seemingly inclined to blow stuff up, but thankfully it becomes clear that their role in the novel is simply to illustrate a view opposing that of the wider society which can be neither assimilated nor placated. She gives reasons for their militancy, and I suspect it's simply a poorly chosen device, although it may seem more so in 2017 than it did in 1975. Ultimately, despite a few disconcerting swerves of this kind, the novel demonstrates itself to be an extended essay on cultural relativism, one which concludes that we really need to stop acting like wankers if we're to get through this.

Unfortunately though, Missing Man seems to provide a clue as to why Katherine MacLean stuck to short stories. The detail is gorgeous, but taken as a full length novel, it felt like walking though fog, unable to see much further than a few feet ahead or behind with very little in the way of underlying structure to support the developing narrative as a unified whole. It felt episodic and the brief glimpses of where we were heading seemed few and far between. That said, as a flawed undertaking by one of the true greats, it still has more going for it than the work of many better publicised names in the field.

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