THE HUMAN FRONT
by Ken MacLeod
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Ken MacLeod’s novels are full of political dialogue, and his novella, The Human Front is no exception. John Matheson lives in a war in which the United States is using a strange type of bomber in its hot war with the Soviet Union. The first time Matheson questions the stories which are coming from the government is when one of the bombers crashlands near his house and he gets a brief glimpse of the child pilot.
Given MacLeod’s apparent interests, it is only natural that the novella appears to be a political story set in an alternate history in which Moscow was destroyed by nuclear bombs in the late forties and the Western World has been involved in a mopping up operation since. Slowly, the (possible) truth of the situation becomes apparent as Matheson discovers the Communist underground and joins them.
The political situation in the book is well thought out, and the characters do not march in lockstep. Matheson and his father argue, not just over politics, but over a number of other issues. Although MacLeod gives the impression that Matheson is something of a loner, he nevertheless does have friends and acquaintances who influence his political decisions and guide his education once he has joined the Communists.
Once the story gets going, it almost seems to run on autopilot. Matheson learns more about what is happening on the other side of the war, becomes involved, begins to take orders from a hidden cabal and eventually joins in an armed uprising. However, it is at this point that MacLeod changes the story. Although Matheson has no real clue about the origin of the strange bombers the Americans are using, the reader realizes quite early what they are and also realizes that the change in history did not come from the destruction of Moscow, but a few years earlier in 1947.
After Matheson learns more of the truth about the American pilots, the tone of the story shifts from a political alternate history to almost a Burroughsian adventure, although still informed by political discourse. Finding himself in a strange setting, Matheson and his companions find themselves trying to apply a Marxist dialectic in a situation which Marx never envisioned. MacLeod handles this change in style adroitly, creating a smooth
MacLeod manages to avoid disguising a political polemic as a work of fiction, instead creating a tale of concern for human suffering which includes political dialogue without writing a dry polemic. Although it is clear that MacLeod wants his readers to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the political systems, what really stands out is the apparent support for terrorist attacks in the name of a greater good. MacLeod’s characters espouse the idea that whatever means are used (such as derailing a train) are justified by their own good intentions.