Review: Hopeland by Ian McDonald

Part way through Ian McDonald’s new and longest-gestated novel, we’re told a story about an Irish man who went traveling in the 1990s after becoming “enamoured of the contemplative religions”. He visited Istanbul, where he spent “five giddy nights immersed in the folded histories of the Queen of Cities”, and then went deeper into Turkey, into the countryside in search of Sufi sites of devotion and worship. But it is for naught. “Oneness eluded him. The world was irretrievably broken, many, scattered.” It’s a striking moment, because one of the things I would generally say about Ian McDonald’s work is that he is a poet of polyphony, and primarily of cities. Novels like The Dervish House (2010), which takes place in Istanbul over five days, rotating within each day between a cast of characters who live in the same house, and before that Brasyl (2007) and River of Gods (2004), positively revel in their many-ness, their ability to capture the intricate cascading complexity of their futures by corralling and collating numerous points of view. If they achieve a necessary narrative unity in their conclusions, there’s always a sense that it’s only a temporary conjunction, planets moving into alignment for a dramatic moment before drifting apart again. Hopeland, however, is a bit different: it sets its sights, like the hopeful traveler, on a more lasting unity.

But it starts in more familiar disunity, with a frenzied but typically vibrant panorama of the 2011 London riots:

It is twenty-three minutes past twenty-two and London burns. Flames roar from the shattered windows of a Brixton Foot Locker. White skeletons of torched Citroens and Toyotas lie broken along Wood Green High Road. In Enfield, a barricade of blazing wheelie bins defies polices and riot dogs. The Turks of Turnpike Lane, baseball bats ready, form a phalanx between their shops, their cafes, their livelihoods, and the voiceless roar of street rage. Jagged teeth of bottle-smash, car-crash windscreen sugar, bashed-in shutters. Scattered shoe boxes and a single flat-screen television, dropped on its back, face shattered by a fleeing foot. From Waltham Forest to Croydon, Woolwich to Shepherd’s Bush, riot runs like molten lead from BackBerry to iPhone, Nokia to Samsung. It lows down into the heart of the city to Islington, Sloane Square, Oxford Circus.

This is what you can expect throughout Hopeland, or any Ian McDonald novel: high-contrast velocity brought to bear on every topic, alliteration and assonance and outright rhyme deployed with confidence and sometimes barefaced cheek (“bottle-smash, car-crash”), grime and sublime side by side, flecked with psychogeographic observations. You could mistake it for freestyle if it wasn’t so obviously the result of craft. When you’re in the flow, there are few working writers who can match him for immersion.

In the midst of the riots, we’re introduced to two characters, who turn out to be representatives of two communities who will shape the following six hundred-odd pages. Amon Brightbourne is “a fawn in a foundry”: young, red-haired, skinny, tweed-clad, and hopelessly out of his depth, as he navigates through the mayhem to a tiny alleyway deep in the heart of Soho. Of course he falls instantly in love when he encounters Raisa Peri Antares Hopeland: also young, brown, athletic, totally at home and about to lose a race across the city. So of course he helps her, and before long becomes enmeshed in the community that lends the novel its name, and Raisa her surname. Hopeland is defined several times over the course of the novel, often at paragraph length and with not a little poetic license. It is a kind of chosen family, a kind of geographically-dispersed nation, a kind of culture. In the context of recent SF it reads a bit like a precursor of the globe-spanning Hives in Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series; in the context of the real world, it reads a bit like a fandom. What it is more than anything is a coalescence: a cohering of disparate individuals into a new kind of unity. The term that recurs is orthopraxy, as opposed to orthodoxy: an alignment of practice, not belief.

Not that Amon’s own background is entirely conventional, as Raisa soon in turn discovers. The Brightbourne family hail from an estate somewhere on the isle of Ireland; I wasn’t clear on the precise location, but that may be deliberate, because it only reveals its entrance when someone can show you the way. The house is big and old and rambling, haphazardly extended and repaired over centuries. The family match it, as do the grounds of the estate; and in those grounds is a wonder to match anything that Hopeland can offer. It’s called, simply, the Music, and it’s the product of a kind of massively elaborate water-clock linked to arrays of bells and chimes, procedurally generating themes and motifs in a progression that it is said will last a thousand years. It’s been running for about thirty. It’s the embodiment of a Brightbourne scion’s obsession with time, and his belief that humans are “chronologically lopsided”, constitutionally unable to think about the future with the same ease with which they can think about the past: “We can think about the time when we were not, but we can’t think about the time when we will not be.” The Music is intended as a thread to lead the imagination of the listeners into that time, beyond the frame of our lives.

Which means, among other things, that the novel is either heading for slingshot (if the Music doesn’t resolve within the frame of the novel) or overshoot (if it does). All of this setup – these two elaborate secret histories layered into the real 2011 – has taken just over one-sixth of the novel, so there’s an awful lot of shaggy and magnificent story that I’m not getting into here, save to say that the novel’s scope expands to become truly planetary, that it is full of drama and spectacle and heart, and features some environmental writing, and more broadly non-urban writing, to match anything McDonald has produced about cities, moving from Pacific Islands to Greenland and various points in between. But after the hundred-page induction I’ve described, I think it is already easy to see that Hopeland is indeed animated by the same desire as that hopeful traveller, seeking a kind of unity – a kind of peace – between Hopeland and Brightbourne, perhaps between Amon and Raisa, but certainly between a new way of thinking about community and a new way of thinking about time.

That’s a worthy project, albeit a little abstract: a project about coming to terms with the anthropocene, about how it will feel at the sharp end. And as the pages mounted, I found myself comparing Hopeland more and more with Stephen Markley’s The Deluge. The two novels take place over almost the same time-frame, linearly, from the early 2010s to the late 2030s. They could technically be two stories taking place set in the same timeline. They do not contradict each other, nor overlap. But in almost every aspect of their execution they contrast. They are different in their geographic focus: Markley writes almost exclusively of the US, McDonald writes almost exclusively about the rest of the world. They are different in their tone: Markley is all sober, intense realism, McDonald is sugar-rush technicolour.

And perhaps most interestingly, they are different in their purpose. Markley is convinced that US action is essential to steer the world towards a survivable future – and he may be right about that – and desperate to construct a plausible pathway towards that action. McDonald barely engages with how we might improve the global situation, seemingly pretty much taking as given that no action commensurate with the crisis will be forthcoming, and focuses instead on how ground-level actors can adapt – perhaps leading to ripple effects down the line, but in the first instance, simply leading to local survival. When writing about The Deluge, I dinged Markley a little for backing away from a final verdict on the timeline he proposes, but now I find myself tempted to ding McDonald for the opposite: a unity that is a little too complete, a little too comforting. It is odd to find myself thinking that it’s the science fiction writer avoiding the hardest questions, or that a six hundred page book ends up feeling a little small. Perhaps this is down to a personal inability to fully avoid trying to find utility in fiction: both books deserve to be widely read, although maybe not always by the same readers.

Or perhaps it’s part and parcel of McDonald’s method. The traveller I mentioned at the start of the review also, we are told, has a theory about fireworks. He says they are the art most like human life, a transient pyrotechnic glory consisting of three acts, spark, ascent, and detonation, with the brightness and beauty of the acts varying depending on the individual concerned. In context it feels like it’s begging to be read as a metaphor for how novels work, not about human lives directly; take that as you will, but what it made me actually think is that Ian McDonald’s are the novels I know that are most like fireworks, and I firmly believe you should never pass up the chance to see a firework display. Certainly not one set to Music.

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  1. Thanks! The Sarah Hall piece is here, and it is interesting: Any list like the Granta one is going…

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