THE SUMMER ISLES
by Ian R. MacLeod
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In 1998, Ian R. MacLeod published a novella entitled "The Summer Isles." The novella went on to win the Sidewise Award for Alternate History and the World Fantasy Award. In addition, it made the Hugo Award ballot in 1999, although it lost to Greg Egan's "Oceanic." It turns out that the highly honored novella was an excerpt from a longer work of the same title, now published in a limited edition by Aio Publishing.
The Summer Isles is set in an England which lost World War I and has come under the rule of a seemingly benevolent dictator, John Arthur. Seen through the eyes of Griffin Brooke, a professor at Oxford, John Arthur's rule is not as benign as others see it. A homosexual who sees other homosexuals and Jews disappearing, he begins to question what is happening to the England he once knew.
Brooke's role is complicated and eased by the fact that in his first speech upon being elected to Parliament, Arthur referred to a teacher, Geoffrey Brook, who was in reality Brooke. Although Brooke had no recollection of teaching Arthur, he is able to capitalize on the connection over the years.
One of the strengths of The Summer Isles is that MacLeod does not wallow in the details of his alternate world, although they come out through Brooke's observations. Most importantly, he gives the lie to the idea that "it couldn't happen here." The ideology he has engulf England is Nazism, but there is a strong feeling of the English squire underneath. The result is a chilling culture which demonstrates that fascism and fanaticism can take root in any country.
In the harsh world of The Summer Isles, a thin level of moral uprightness covers a world of hypocrisy and moral questionability. Homosexuality is frowned upon, yet the upperclasses can enjoy nude beaches, charity is a virtue, but only when provided to the correct people. What makes the story even more haunting is the acceptance given the rules of Arthur's Modernism by the otherwise upstanding citizens who focus on their own well-being without worrying about their neighbors, as epitomized by Mrs. Stevens when her neighbors disappeared in a police raid.
Perhaps because The Summer Isles started out as a novel and had the novella extracted, this longer version does not feel padded. Brooke and Arthur's story flows smoothly as Brooke tries to learn what is really going on beneath the veneer of progress, Modernism, in England. In many ways, the novel takes the form of a mystery novel as Brooke begins to make connections from his past to Modern England. While the most important to the plot is his discovery of his own relationship with the young John Arthur, the questions his connections raise drive the story.
The Summer Isles is a strong as the previously published novella and adds details to MacLeod's world. In addition to being the tale of Brooke and Arthur, as the earlier story was, the novel presents more of a cautionary tale that everyone must maintain diligence in order to defeat the ever present dangers of tyranny and despotism, no matter how freedom loving a country's rhetoric may be.
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