Pluralistic: Ian McDonald's "Hopeland" (30 May 2023)

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The cover for the Tor Books edition of 'Hopeland.'

Ian McDonald's "Hopeland" (permalink)

Have you ever read a novel that was so good you almost felt angry at it? I mean, maybe that's just me, but there is one author who consistently triggers my literary pleasure centers so hard that I get spillover into all my other senses, and that's Ian McDonald, who has a new novel out: Hopeland:

Seriously what the fuck is this amazing, uncategorizable, unsummarizable, weird, sprawling, hairball of a novel? How the hell do you research – much less write – a novel this ambitious and wide-ranging? Why did I find myself weeping uncontrollably on a train yesterday as I finished it, literally squeezing my chest over my heart as it broke and sang at the same moment?

Hopeland is a climate novel, and it's not McDonald's first. Hearts, Hands and Voices (published in the US as The Broken Land) is a climate novel (that also happens to be about the Irish Troubles). So is his stunning debut, Desolation Road, which I picked up at a mall bookstore in 1988 and lost my mind over:

But those were climate novels written in the early stages of the discussion of the gravity of the anthropocene, and so climate change was more setting than anything else. In Hopeland, the climate is more of a character – not a protagonist, but also not a minor character.

The true stars of Hopeland are members of two ancient, secret societies. There's Raisa Hopeland, who belongs to a globe-spanning, mystical "family," that's one part mutual aid, one part dance music subculture, and one part sorcerer (some Hopelanders are electromancers, making strange, powerful magic with Tesla coils).

We meet Raisa as she is racing across London in a bid to win a rare, open electromancer title. She is on the brink of losing, but then a passerby pitches in to help: Amon Brightborne, part of another mystical family whose stately, odd manor in the English countryside can only be reached by people who can work the "gateway," which makes the road disappear and reappear. Amon is a composer and DJ who specializes in making music for very small groups of people – preferably just one person – that is so perfect for them that they are transformed by hearing it.

Amon's intervention in Raisa's bid for electromancy unites these two formerly disjoint families, entwining their destinies just as the world is forever changing, thanks to the decidedly un-magical buildup of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere. They have a romance, a breakup, a child. They are scattered to opposite ends of the Earth – Iceland and a tiny Polynesian island.

Their lives are electrified. Literally. On her passage to Iceland, Raisa confronts a ship-destroying megastorm, speaks its true name, and sends it away before it can sink the container ship – captained by a Hopelander who gives her free passage – that she is sailing on. In Iceland, she falls in with more Hopelanders, tapping a thermal vent to create a greenhouse cannabis farm, which begets a luxury salad greens business, then an electricity plant that attracts cryptocurrency weirdos like shit draws flies.

Amon, meanwhile, is sinking into drunken ruin on his island paradise, where he becomes a kind of mascot for the locals, who respect his musical prowess. The island is sinking, both figuratively and literally, as its offshore king, hiding in a luxury mansion in Sydney, drains its aquifers for the luxury bottled water market and loots its treasuries to fund his own high lifestyle.

McDonald takes a long time getting to this point. This is a 500 page novel, and the build to this setup takes nearly 300 of them. Every word of that setup is gold. McDonald's prose often veers into poetry, or at least poesie, and he has this knack for seemingly superfluous vignettes and detours that present as self-indulgences but then snap into place later as critical pieces of a superbly turned narrative. How the fuck does he do it?

How does he do it? How does he deliver a sense of such vastness, a world peopled by vastly different polities and populations, distinctly different without ever being exoticized, each clearly the hero of their own story, whether they live on a tiny island or captain an American battleship?

I mean, cyberpunk – the tradition McDonald most obviously belongs to – was always about a post-American future, but no one ever managed it the way McDonald did. He delivered a superb, complex, Indian future in 2004's River of Gods:

And then did the same in Brazil with 2007's Brasyl:

And Turkey in 2011's Dervish House, a novel of mystical nanofuturism set in an Istanbul that is so vividly drawn that you feel like you can reach through the page and touch it:

Those were ambitious books, but Hopeland puts them to shame. It draws on so many threads – music and art, climate justice, mysticism, electrical engineering, economics, gender politics – and has such a huge cast of finely drawn characters. By all rights, it should collapse under its own weight. I mean, seriously – who can write multi-page passages describing imaginary music and make it riveting?

McDonald is just so damned good at writing love-letters to places that turn them into characters in their own right. The first third of Hopeland treats London that way, bringing it to gritty life in the manner of Michael de Larrabeiti's classic Borribles trilogy:

Or, for that matter, China Miéville's debut novel King Rat, itself out in a fancy new Tor Essentials edition with an introduction by Tim Maughan, who absolutely bullseyes the appeal of Miéville's novel of underground music, mystical societies and urbanism:

(It shouldn't surprise you to learn that Miéville is a giant Borribles fan:)

I have loved Ian McDonald's work since I picked up Desolation Road in that mall bookstore when I was 17. One of the absolute highlights of my writing career was writing an introduction for the 2014 reissue of Out On Blue Six, a book that mashes up David Byrne's solo projects, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley's Brave New World and Dick's Do Androids Dream in a madcap dystopian comedy:

I've read everything I could find about how he manages these giant, weird, intricately constructed novels, like this fascinating 2010 interview about his research process:

But despite it all, I find myself continuously baffled by how manages it, and each book just stabs me. For one thing, he's such a good remix artist. His three-volume, essential retelling of Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress starts with Luna: New Moon (2015):

Which substantially out-Heinleins Heinlein, adding thickness and rigor to the tropes Heinlein tossed in as throwaways. Then, he topped himself with the sequel, Luna: Wolf Moon (2017):

Before bringing it all in for a screaming landing that tied up the hundreds of threads he pulled on in the course of the previous two volumes with the conclusion, Luna: Moon Rising (2019):

In each volume, McDonald proved – over and over – that he understood precisely what Heinlein was trying to do, then outdid him, and, in so doing, shredded Heinlein's solipsitic, simplistic, seductive argument about a libertarian utopia.

Perhaps this is McDonald's greatest gift: his ability to rework others' ideas, tropes and tales, without ever trying to hide his influences, and then vastly outdoing them. That's certainly what was going on with his wild-ass, deiselpunk YA trilogy, which started with 2011's Planesrunner:

One important McDonaldism: being deadly serious about his whimsy. The books are all very whimsical, but never frivolous. To get a sense of what I mean here, consider his 1992 graphic novel Kling Klang Klatch, a deadly serious comic book about the Klu Klux Klan, told entirely through adorable teddybears in a noir cityscape, whose dialog is heavily salted with Tom Waits lyrics:

No, really. And it's fantastic.

Back to Hopeland. It's a climate novel, because what else could you write in this time of polycrisis? The book is vast enough to convey the scale of the crisis. The storms that ravage the world are both personified and realized, a terror to compare to any literary monster or Cthulhoid entity. But it's called Hopeland for a reason, because it's a book about hope, not nihilism, a book about confronting the crisis, a book about solidarity and love, about overcoming difference, about challenging the way things "just are."

That's why I was crying and holding my heart yesterday on the train. The hope. What a ride.

One of the reasons I was in such a hurry to read this novel now is that I'm appearing on a panel with McDonald this coming Saturday, June 3, at Edinburgh's Cymera festival, along with Nina Allen, author of the new novel Conquest:

I'm so looking forward to it. I've written a couple dozen books since I read my first McDonald novel as a teenager, and while I still have no idea how McDonald does it, there's something of his work in every one of my books.

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