Ian McDonald has become well known in the last decade for novels like River of Gods (2004) and The Dervish House (2010) which look at the future of parts of the planet to which SF has paid little attention. I’ve been reading him from his first novel, Desolation Road (post) and watching his career with interest. One of my favourite of his books is Sacrifice of Fools (1997) which I do not think ever had a US edition, and which I sometimes feel nobody else has read. I see it as connected with King of Morning, Queen of Day (1991) (post) because they are both about Ireland. King of Morning, Queen of Day creates a fantastic Ireland, and Sacrifice of Fools creates a science fictional one.
The premise of Sacrifice of Fools is that aliens arrive in the near future of 1997, eight million aliens with alien technology and a starship. They settle on Earth and share their tech at least somewhat. Large numbers of them settle in Belfast. And what’s the first question you ask? Are they Catholic aliens or Protestant aliens? Of course it’s more complicated than that.
McDonald’s near-future Belfast is a complicated place. It’s also a very real place — the alien Shian are a thread he weaves into the rich existing historical and cultural tapestry. The descriptions are vivid throughout — streets and neighbourhoods and alien temples, docks and blocks of flats and an alien spaceship. There’s always a potential problem with bringing something made up into the real world — the real world has weight and complexity for the reader already, while the made up thing has only what the book can give it. In putting his aliens into a Belfast made only more complex by further political development, McDonald is taking a huge risk — but it works. The reason this kind of risk can pay off so well is that when it does work, the unfamiliar can throw the familiar into a new relief. The addition of complex aliens to the already complex situation makes some things easier to see without simplifying anything. Everyone has their own agenda.
It’s perhaps just as well that the actual plot is fairly simple. Some aliens are murdered. Then some humans are murdered by the same horrible method. A human female Catholic cop, a human male Protestant who learned the alien language in prison, and a female Shian lawyer investigate to try to discover the culprit, sometimes working together and sometimes at cross purposes. It’s a plot that never stops moving for a moment, but the real hero of the novel is Belfast in all its guises.
Ian McDonald is from Belfast, but there’s no easy adjectival way to describe his ethnicity without taking a political position. When you start saying Northern Ireland, Ulster, Irish, Anglo-Irish, British you’re taking sides or making claims. The words run out. Sacrifice of Fools is directly about this. It’s about prejudice and obstinacy and cultural differences and cultural chasms. It gets right into the middle of a politically difficult situation — even more so in 1997 than now — and puts aliens in there.
The one award that noticed this brilliant book was the Tiptree, which included it on the shortlist. The book is indeed doing lots of interesting things with gender. The Shians have gender once they are adult, but they only have sexuality for five weeks twice a year when they go into a period of reproductive heat. And of course there are humans who want to have sex with the aliens, as well as humans who want to become the aliens to the point of body modification. (In an example of the way the details all feel right, the sign for an illegal alien sex club is a single Peking duck hung in the window, “red swinging meat” — the Shian have terracotta coloured skin.)
But the most interesting and unusual thing the book does with gender and gender roles is that all three protagonists have young children for whom they have to arrange childcare before they can go off and have adventures. This isn’t a huge thing, but it’s a persistent issue for all of them. There really are remarkably few books I can think of where arranging childcare is a problem for a protagonist — never mind all three. McDonald makes it seem like just one of those things — and it is. It’s one of those things like overtime and alcoholism and wanting to belong somewhere.
Sacrifice of Fools is a powerful and effective story. It’s one of those books that makes you say “wow” a lot and splutter incoherently.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.