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The Human Front by Ken MacLeod/A Writer’s Life by Eric Brown

01/04/2003. Contributed by Sue Davies

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Pub: Gollancz. 90/107 page paperback. Price: £ 5.99 (UK). ISBN: 0-575-07505-8.

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The Human Front: The world of Ken MacLeod's 'human front' seems rather dour and loveless at first sight. Brought up initially on the Scottish island of Lewis, our protagonist John Lewis has a normal childhood until he is witness to a very strange happening.

His world is not ours. In this world, the Russians are fighting the Americans in the 1960s and there are frequent bombing raids.

A curious anti-gravity bomber has been developed that is disc-shaped. When one crashes and John's doctor father is asked to treat the pilot, he is shocked by what he sees.

Later, when John joins the 'Human Front' against he learns more about the continuing war but nothing can prepare him for what follows.

Ken MacLeod's world reminded me of '1984' with its secrecy and continued propaganda for a war without end that may or may not be true.

Using the alternate history time-line allows the author to make a fresh approach to a well-used subject. Again, little more can be said without giving away the plot.

A Writer’s Life: A young novelist reads as much as possible to make him a better writer. He happens upon an author from the mid twentieth century called Vaughan Edwards whose works, although flawed, intrigues him.

He obtains as many of the now out-of-print novels as he can. Whilst doing this he comes across an author from the 19th Century whose books appeared to have been plagiarised by Vaughan Edwards.

The story is of a life lived steeped in literature. Daniel's girl-friend prefers the Brontes and they have a stormy relationship. She is unable to commit emotionally.

Daniel's novels it transpires are not mature. The works suffer from an 'excessive emotionalism' according to one critic.

The author, Eric Brown, has created an intriguing world. The story is told through the first person narrative of Daniel with additional excerpts from his personal journals. The account is of personal discovery and also of a horrible truth about what became of the other novelists.

There is little more than can be said without giving away the story. It is an out of the ordinary narrative. The reader ponders the mystery alongside Daniel Ellis.

Although arbitrarily classed as Science Fiction, it would be fairer to place this narrative alongside Edgar Allan Poe where the internal dynamics of the plot are reflected in the external world. Although placed in a Science Fiction context, the story of Daniel Ellis is about how the human heart and brain continues to learn and develop through experience.

These two novellas are bound together. They do share certain themes and they both desire to shock the reader out of complacent acceptance of reality as we know it. Of the two, I feel more affinity with 'The Human Front' and would actively seek out further work by Ken MacLeod.

It seems typical of this country to put everything into boxes. Both stories are very literary and offer much detail in the quite short narrative. They are both resonant of works by other authors in the genre. It would be great if casual readers would pick these off the SF shelf but that categorisation may do them disservice in the long run.

Sue Davies

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