“They’d never see it coming”

Ken MacLeod, Intrusion (2012)

The thing about choice is, there are so many variables. In the future of Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion, there is a “free and social market” to give people a hand with all that choice. As the protagonist’s MP explains:

For the market to be really free, it has to work as if everyone involved had perfect information…This is where the social side comes from – the state…steps in to allow people to make the choices they would have made if they’d had that information. Because these are the really free choices (p. 147, italics in original).

This sort of pernicious rhetoric has pervaded government and society in the novel: licensed venues don’t allow music or swearing (“Creating a hostile environment,” p. 28); hand-delivering a letter to your MP is considered a possible act of terrorism (who knows what could be inside, and why didn’t you use the official channels?). It’s absurd, but this is the world in which MacLeod’s characters find themselves all the same.

The particular development which provides Intrusion’s impetus is a pill called “the fix”, which a pregnant woman can take to safely eliminate genetic defects from her developing baby. I say “can”, but talking the fix is on its way to becoming compulsory in England, unless you have a legitimate objection. Faith-based objections are fine, and there are various acceptable humanist justifications available; so more or less anyone who objects to taking the fix has a way out. No problems, eh?

No problems, that is, unless you don’t really have a reason for objecting to the fix – unless you simply don’t want to. This is the situation of Hope Morrison, expecting her second child, who can’t honestly commit to any of the stances that would permit her not to take the fix. The saying goes that nature abhors a vacuum, and the authorities in Intrusion abhor people like Hope, because they cannot put these individuals into boxes, and hence cannot understand them – and who knows what such people might do?

The main engine of Intrusion’s plot (particularly in its latter half) is the Morrison family’s attempt to escape London for a now-independent Scotland (where Hope’s husband Hugh was born) – but it is in MacLeod’s portrait of his future society that the novel shines most brightly. Several times, we see how the authorities cross-reference online traces and other seemingly-unremarkable points of data, and infer that someone might be a security risk – and the first they know of it is when the police come for them. This mirrors the novel’s sense that isolated bits of rhetoric have cohered invisibly to form the framework of government ideology; which can also be a net to trap the unwary, as Hope and other characters discover. The ending of Intrusion is also built on the idea of isolated details coming together unexpectedly, which is a satisfying touch.

Perhaps what’s most chilling about Intrusion is its quietness. As terrible as the society and events of MacLeod’s novel can be, its prose treats them largely as banal, which is quite fitting for the insidious way they’ve come about. Intrusion is likewise a book that creeps up on you – and stays there, just out of sight, waiting.

This book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts on this year’s Award.


  1. I love the sound of this book! I’ve just been reading the non-fiction book FAR FROM THE TREE that mentions the problems of ridding the world of difference. I’d love to see how tis topic is handled in fiction. I’ll try to get hold of a copy.

  2. This has been on my wishlist for a while now but I’m waiting for it to come out in paperback next week. It was longlisted for the Wellcome Trust book prize last year and the premise really captured my attention. Great review.

  3. With Ken Maclead everything seems to wind up back in Scotland.

    I am perpetually interested in this one, but it sounds like it might be one of those books with great ideas, but a bit of a slog to get through.

  4. David Hebblethwaite

    4th March 2013 at 2:14 pm

    Jackie: I’d be interested to see what you think of this. You should have no trouble finding a copy – if the hardback’s not in the library, the paperback is out on Thursday.

    Marie: Thanks!

    Russell: All I can say is, I didn’t find the book a slog – quite the opposite.

  5. I loved McLeod’s early work, but his more recent novels have left me a bit colder. This sounds interesting though.

    Is Hope’s position merely perverse? It sounds like she’s risking her child’s health without any particular reason to do so, which is a bit odd as a stance.

  6. David Hebblethwaite

    6th March 2013 at 1:53 pm

    This is actually the first of his novels that I’ve read, though I am interested in exploring the early stuff next.

    It sounds like she’s risking her child’s health without any particular reason to do so, which is a bit odd as a stance.

    Yeah, there is a sense in which MacLeod is fudging on the veracity of his premises in order to create the kind of situation he wants to explore. Myself, I wasn’t entirely sure whether the fix would be so readily accepted, even with all the safety testing; but I was prepared to go with it for the sake of the novel.

  7. The early stuff is very, very good indeed. The sheer confidence and ambition he shows, humanity’s future spiralling out of an argument between two left wing students in 1970s Scotland, it’s just exceptional as are the depictions of varying political solutions.

    Still, you can’t write the same books forever. He has to move on, and part of that is possibly losing some readers along the way. The alternative is stagnation, and I wouldn’t wish that on him.

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