The Human Front by Ken MacLeod
(PS Publishing, £8/US$14, special signed edition, paperback, ISBN 1-902-880-30-7; also available in hardback, £25/US$40; published December 2001. Republished in Binary 5, with Eric Brown's A Writer's Life, Gollancz, £5.99, 107 + 90 pages, paperback, January 2003.)
The Human Front has not only been published individually as a novella, but also nominated for a Sidewise Award for Alternate History (although oddly enough in the Long Form section). Both facts suggest that this is a book well worth reading. The Sidewise people certainly aren't idiots, and neither are those at PS Publishing; so why was reading The Human Front so like eating a Milky Way ('the sweet you can eat between meals without ruining your appetite')?
First, let's cut briefly to the essentials of the story.
John Matheson lives in a reality where the Third World War is an ongoing fact of life; nuclear weapons have been used but only sparingly, and almost the entire world is fighting somebody or other. John is born and bred in Scotland, and at a very young age witnesses something odd going on with one of the mysterious American saucer-shaped anti-gravity bombers that are almost winning the war for them. Growing up, his sympathies are caught by the Soviets and he becomes part of the fifth column against the Americans and British. One day, in very different circumstances to those previously, he encounters another of the saucers...
I was disappointed by The Human Front, not deeply and miserably, but just broadly, as I've been dissatisfied with the Engines of Light sequence so far, because it seems such a lightweight story compared to MacLeod's harder, thicker, better-argued earlier works. Everything you'd expect is here - some cool (but now 'everyday') technologies, the factionalised left-wing politics and often fiercely argued philosophy, but it all seems somehow diluted, rushed through and somewhat perfunctorily engaged with. Given that such argument and ensuing radical viewpoints are what first made MacLeod stand out from the crowd, their absence is very noticeable.
The Human Front is an engagingly-told and well-built story - as you'd expect there's nothing wrong with the syntax or the telling. I dived in with gusto and enjoyed it as far as it went, but the quick ending is very disappointing and left this reviewer simply shrugging his shoulders and moving on to the next book.
Not only that, but there are a great many similarities with Cosmonaut Keep - so much so that I'd be very interested to hear whether The Human Front began life as an aborted beginning to that book.
Could do better.
Review by Stuart Carter
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© Stuart Carter 23 March 2002