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Hopeland by Ian McDonald

16/06/2023
Hopeland by Ian McDonald

British science fiction author Ian McDonald has had a long, varied and successful career which has netted him a number of awards and plenty of nominations. His most recent Luna series, a kind of Game of Thrones on the Moon was so rich that the originally planned duology grew into trilogy. Prior to that some really interesting stories set in places that do not often get a lot of love from Western science fiction authors – a future India in River of Gods, Brasil in Brasyl and Turkey in The Dervish House. But he has also explored other science fictional corners including time travel and aliens. His latest book Hopeland, if it was going to be categorised probably bests sits in the climate fiction, or possibly the more optimistic, solarpunk category. Although it does not start out that way, it is for the most part a day after tomorrow exploration of the world and how we might deal with coming catastrophes.

Hopeland opens in 2011 during the London riots. A young man called Amon Brightbourne, meets-cute a woman called Raisa Hopeland and helps her win a competition against one of her family. Both characters have interesting backstories. The Hopelands are a kind of global, distributed found family, many are not born into it but join it by choice. In London, the Hopelands guard and use giant Tesla coils which gives them the power to control electricity. Meanwhile the Brightbournes live in a hidden pocket of England and maintain a water-powered musical instrument that has a thousand year cycle. The first born male of each Brightbourne generation is touched by a kind of luck calls The Grace, but when it works it brings bad luck to those around them. So much of this is set up in the first third of the book, although most of this detail makes little or no difference to the remainder of the action which takes place twenty two years later as global climate is deteriorating.

Hopeland was apparently written over a period of twenty three years and it shows. It very much feels like McDonald started off wanting to tell one type of story but then decided to tell another type of story just using the same characters and without really resolving or using anything that made them interesting in the first place. Raisa takes off to Iceland where she creates a green-technology giant that will allow the world to possibly weather coming climate changes. And Amon ends up on a South Pacific Island where he gets involved in local politics and helping the community to respond to its own climate-induced tragedy. In neither case does anything special about them established in the first section of the book, Raisa’s electrical affinity and Amon’s luck, play any part in the plot. That is not necessarily a problem but it does indicate ideas left on the cutting room floor.

The central idea of Hopeland is one of family and connectedness. The Hopeland family is one that transcends religious or national boundaries. It is a group of people who are family because they say they are family. And this creates both a power and a force for good. McDonald also uses this structure to explore issues of gender. An idea is a child is essentially genderless (they are just a “kid”) until they need to choose but that perhaps that choice is not necessarily binary.

There is a deep well of optimism in Hopeland. The idea that despite some coming challenges, human beings will rise above – they will find technological solutions and come together when needed to help each other. But the whole work is disjointed. It feels like three different stories that have just been shoehorned together, none of which helps or really infoms the other. Just as an example, at one point the centre of attention is Raisa’s brother Finn who finds himself using his electrical power to fight off some kind of electrical demon. Nothing really comes of this confrontation  and there is no ongoing consequence to any of the rest of the story (except that Finn ends up with some scars). And none of this is helped by the occasional use of other styles – storytelling, documents, manuscript – to tell various parts of the story.

McDonald is a great science fiction writer who has delivered some of the genre’s best works. In Hopeland it feels like he lost his way. It is a book that opens with magic and a kind of steampunk sensibility but morphs into something completely different. Not in a way that enhances what has come before but rather in a way that will make readers wonder why they bothered.

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