Near-future dystopia in fictional Highland village

by Roger Hutchinson


It is the near future. We are in a typical West Highland township called Inverlair.

There is nothing apparently unusual about Inverlair. Indeed, it is readily identifiable. It has a hotel, a hotel keeper and a hotelkeeper’s daughter. It has a GP, lucky place. It has an estate stalker. It has guys with boats. It has a hippie in a caravan. Just along the coast it has a big house which is occasionally occupied by the current landowner, some sheikh or other.

The sheikh is not in residence. Nor is he likely to be in residence for quite some time to come. That is not necessarily because the sheikh is bored with his Highland playground. It is because, even if he is still alive, he will not be able to reach Inverlair.

Inverlair is a “notspot”. It is surrounded by a huge “hotspot” which might cover most of the rest of Europe and beyond.

Inverlair is lucky. Better to be a notspot than a hotspot because, as far as we know, everybody in a hotspot is dead. They have been sent to sleep and left to starve by rays transmitted from giant masts.

For whatever reason the rays could not reach sleepy Inverlair. But they do reach to within a few miles of its land and marine surrounds, and if you venture out there among them… well, you get struck by fierce headaches, nosebleeds and finally that fatal, permanent sleep.

So its inhabitants are stranded in Inverlair. They are forced back on themselves, their land and their inshore waters, and their native ingenuity for survival. And they will be there until — as is likely to happen — the years pass and the rays lose their potency, or until some unlikely rescue is attempted from outside.

Their home has become their open prison. And that is the intriguing premise of Michael F Russell’s excellent first novel, ‘Lie of the Land’.

A note of clarification. This promising young author is known to most of us as the Michael Russell whose journalism we read every week in the West Highland Free Press. That mysterious ‘F’ has never previously been called into use. It is on his book because another man, the MSP for Argyll and Bute, is also called Michael Russell and has also written books. Neither of those two authors desires, under any circumstances, to be mistaken for the other, so the author of ‘Lie of the Land’ has conjured up a middle name which begins with ‘F’. Got it?

Not very long ago a book such as ‘Lie of the Land’ would have been categorised as science fiction, or futurism, or dystopian. We are luckily moving away from such genres. When a novel is as well written as this, it stands as literature and may only be judged on literary merits.

Michael F Russell has nonetheless chosen the future as his topic. He has seen the future, and it’s murder. For 2000 years and more writers who looked forward did so with a degree of optimism. From Plato through Sir Thomas More to HG Wells, humans were considered to be fallible. But societal organisation and then technology was plainly malleable and could — indeed, probably would — be harnessed by our children for the greater good.

Traces of that benign future could be discerned until recently. People born early in the 20th century were probably the last western generations to trust in progress, to adhere to Enlightenment values, to submit to the march of technology and believe that Tupperware boxes were the last word in the storage of picnic egg sandwiches.

What happened to that future of broad sunlit uplands, discreetly dotted by sustainable manufactories manned by robots, peopled by 150-year-old pensioners, carefree children cavorting on the common green and adults hopping sociably about the planet in sun-powered individual aeroships?

The 20th century happened. World wars, the threat of nuclear annihilation, global warming, and brutal dictatorships on every continent but Antarctica killed Utopia. Far from being perfectible, we came to regard ourselves and our work as irredeemable. Utopia became Dystopia, and most futuristic novels became footnotes to George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’.

Carl Shewan, the central figure in Mike Russell’s ‘Lie of the Land’, was a journalist before disaster struck. That is significant because Shewan had a small opportunity, which he was not able to take, to alert his fellow citizens to the danger.

Instead he could only save himself by fleeing Glasgow for the haven of Inverlair. Russell deals beautifully with the ensuing contradictions.

Four hundred years ago such a remote Highland hamlet would hardly have noticed if the rest of the world closed down. Even 60 years ago it could have gotten by comfortably. But this is the 21st century and people like Carl Shewan are not equipped to go back to the future.

Luckily for them, the place itself and some of its inhabitants are so equipped. Shewan’s and his neighbours’ saviour is an ageing local stalker whose ability to kill and prepare food becomes suddenly more vital than a non-existent tourist industry. If humanity is worth saving in this small place — and both Russell and Shewan are circumspect about that — it can save itself with no greater technology than a .308 rifle and no finer skills than gralloching a deer.

With that unfamiliar lifestyle arrives the lesson of the novel. Everything kills or is killed. Carnivorous crows eat newly-born herbivorous lambs. And if we shoot deer, why should they not?

“Everything is entitled to its share,” says a friend of Carl in Inverlair. “Somewhere along the line I think we forgot that. We wanted it all for ourselves.”

Michael F Russell has delivered an intriguing, thought-provoking and immensely readable book. You do not have to be Highland to lose yourself in its pages. It merely helps.

‘Lie of the Land’, by Michael F Russell; Polygon, £12.99