The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

From its bravura opening line—“Grandfather was a tree”—and its initial image of a living house running amok through a village, Ian McDonald’s fourth novel quickly establishes a bizarre setting and a haunting tone that seem to owe as much to surrealism as to earlier science fiction. The Broken Land essentially is the tale of a young girl’s quest across a planet whose shifting landscapes and political structures alternately call to mind Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, South Africa, and contemporary Ireland.

These vividly realized settings and the unfolding quest itself are suggested by the novel’s six sections: “The Township,” “The Road,” “The City,” “The River,” “The Camps,” and “The Borderland.” The central conflict in the story is one of biology and technology. The Proclaimers have established a totalitarian empire that rules the planet through conventional technology, and the Confessors have developed advanced skills in biotechnology since the discovery, generations earlier, of a technique for manipulating DNA directly from the human nervous system. The Confessors have long sought self-determination and freedom.

In Chepsenyt Township, the idyllic Confessor village where Mathembe Fileli lives, nearly everything is grown rather than manufactured, and free “organicals” called trux are farmed like animals. A kind of immortality has been achieved: The heads of ancestors can retain a kind of...

(The entire section is 531 words.)