Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Dome of One's Own: Oisin McGann, Small Minded Giants. London: Doubleday & Co. Inc., 2007

I'll come to the title at the end.

Sol lives in a domed community. It may be the last community in the world. The dome keeps out the ice and the snow, and once it kept out people when the climate changed and the rich scurried to survive. The dome is somewhere in the Phillipines but the Phillipines now only exists as the workers in the slums, and the gang leaders in the lower parts of the city. Sol, descendant of skilled workers, is relatively privileged, but the emphasis is on relatively, He has school, and food, but its all pretty meagre and his dad is a Daylighter, one of the men who replace the now broken machinery which was meant to keep the dome clear of snow and let the sun in.

The story opens after approximately one hundred and fifty years has passed and people know that there are probably another six hundred or so to go. Sol is on a school trip when he sees one of the crane cars crash. Then he hears his father has murdered someone and disappeared. Suddenly people are looking for him, assuming that he will know where his father is.

What follows is a classic sf/thriller in which Sol and his friend .... are pulled into the working of the city. At times this story reminded me of Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll" even for a moment arguing that the unions are corrupt and want to bring the city down to prove their own importance. But eventually McGann--as one might expect with his previous credentials--draws us into a more complex argument about the effects of capitalism and competition on a closed society that is utterly interdependent. There are also a few pointed suggestions that we might want to think about who owns our world.

The story ends with information being released into the open. What people will do with that is left open to question and there's a hint that the crusading policeman might be a threat in the long term--that the Dome is about to swap a plutocracy for a tyranny.

But how does it work as science fiction? As usual with McGann, the politico-social aspect of sf is handled deftly. At no point can we relax and think of it as a world "just like ours". Similarly, the engineering of the world is visible: the Dome keeps going with the Heart Engine, a system by which the movement of people keeps complex dynamos generating energy (proving in a very literal sense that unity is strength). I was also pleased that Sol is very working class; his future is in boxing and manual labour. But what struck me is that with the exception of a very distant adult (Julio, boyfriend of Sol's teacher) we met no engineers. Sol and his friends engage with the surface of the world, not with its workings. Julio felt like a homage to the distant past, a man who could sound romantic about ventilation systems. I know men like that. I'd like to see a few more of them in sf for kids.

And the small minded giants? A reference to capitalists, whose tails continue to thrash long after their heads and purpose are cut off.


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