Sacrifice Of Fools

By Ian McDonald

Rating: 4 stars

An alien fleet is detected at the edge of the solar system, but they come not as invaders, but as settlers. Here to trade their advanced technology for land, to live amongst us. In Northern Ireland, people barely notice, wrapped up as they are in their own petty dispute, until an 80,000 strong colony of the Shian is deposited amongst them. Reformed ex-con Andy Gillespie works with them, helping to integrate them with the Human communities around them, and when a Shian family is brutally murdered he takes it upon himself to hunt down the killer.

To me this felt like quite a personal book for McDonald, set in the country that he’s called home for most of his life (and my own homeland, even if I’ve made the migration in the opposite direction). He’s scathing about it being wrapped up in its own politics of bigotry and fear that the “community leaders”, and some parts of the community are in this Province. It’s the old joke updated: “yeah, but are they Catholic aliens or Protestant aliens?” The first contact scenario lets him rake an outsider’s critical eye over Ulster and he finds us wanting.

The Shian were pleasingly alien, in mind, if not necessarily in body. Although they are sexless apart from two mating seasons a year, they are humanoid and can pass well enough that sub-cultures spring up, attracted to them. The idea of encoding language in chemistry and being able to pass it on by exchanging bodily fluids is fascinating (and pleasingly icky).

Of our two point of view characters, ex-con Gillespie is easy to like. He’s the real hero of the book, trying to find a new family to replace the one that fell apart with his marriage and he thinks he’s found it amongst the Shian, until the murders begin. Our other protagonist, Detective Sargent Roisin Dunbar is much less likeable for most of the book. She has entrenched, old-fashioned policing ideas (not necessarily good, when the old police is the RUC) and her prejudices lie near the surface. But as we spend time with her, and get under her skin we start to empathise with her. A neat trick that McDonald pulls off well.

The book, set as it is in the first decade of the 21st century, has now become alt history. It was written in 1996, when the peace process that would lead up to the Good Friday Agreement was still in its early stages, and the Joint Authority (shared sovereignty of Northern Ireland between the UK and the Republic of Ireland) is an interesting alternative, although one that, I think, would have been much harder to get through, than the devolved settlement that we eventually got.

McDonald never shows us how the rest of the world is coping with the Shian, and that also can be a metaphor for Northern Ireland: parochial, petty and wrapped up in its own affairs. Maybe I’m being harsh on my homeland, and maybe the same can be said of most nations but given that apart from a brief mention in the prologue of how the UN was reacting to the news, our focus never leaves Northern Ireland (except for a brief trip to Dublin).

A good first contact story and a good murder mystery. I’ve been a fan of McDonald for some time and this book does nothing to change that.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575060753
Publisher: Victor Gollancz
Year of publication: 1996

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