RogerBW's Blog

Halfhead, Stuart MacBride 20 October 2020

2009 crime/SF. In future Glasgow, serious criminals are "halfheaded", lobotomised and their lower jaws removed, to work as simple labour and serve as an example to others. But, to nobody's surprise, that isn't much of a deterrent to some.

So MacBride's grim and gritty – or should I say instead grim and sticky – approach to crime writing meets an SF setting which includes hand weapons which can instantly turn someone's head into a thick red spray. (Or do the same to the wielder's own foot, if they're not careful.) And they're a surprisingly good match.

All right, this isn't the sort of SF setting that starts with an idea for a bit of technology and asks "what if that worked". It starts with "I want these neat toys in my story, so that's what exists". So one couldn't treat it as Serious Science Fiction, just as one can't the …in Death series (OK, this is a bit more serious than that); but it's still a decent setting for telling a story about a cop on, or well beyond, the edge, who's still trying to do his job in spite of all the pressures to take the easy way.

It fairly immediately becomes apparent to the reader, thanks to killer's-eye scenes, that that one halfhead is not like the others, but it takes everyone in the book rather longer to work out that possibility. Of course we are not used to the halfheads' presence and invisibility the way those characters are, but I did feel this was a bit of a mis-step, leaving the protagonists (and this is something of a team effort, which works well) floundering for longer than they really should be in a narrative sense.

However, that's certainly not the only thing that's going on here. There are apparently-spontaneous killings going on in the 60,000-person blocks where the useless of Glasgow wait out their lives in virtual reality, and solving that will lead down some very twisty paths to surprisingly powerful people.

He pointed at a shadow on the wall—ingrained dust showing where a picture had hung for years. The grime framing the rectangular silhouette was made up of tiny dots of cyan, magenta, yellow and black.

This reminded me a bit of Brookmyre's Places in the Darkness: similarly SF by a crime writer, similarly light on the tricky SF bits that might give non-SF readers pause. But for me it holds together better, possibly because the setting isn't all that far from the present-day earthbound Scottish cities where MacBride is thoroughly at home.

There's room for a sequel, but none has appeared; still, the story is basically complete in itself, and in my current mood (generally despairing) it worked remarkably well.

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See also:
Places in the Darkness, Chris Brookmyre

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