The portrayal of alien races are a stock in trade of Science Fiction novels, yet too frequently they are little more than visions of humanity with peculiar physical features and recognisable, though strange, human characteristics. Many authors seem to believe that aliens with a pseudo-oriental or similar culture are alien enough for mid-West American readers, and novels playing upon the differences between humanity and alien culture are often predictable and tired. In Ian McDonald's new novel Sacrifice of Fools, however, McDonald has created in the Shian a humanoid race with a believable and different culture: whose difference creeps up on the reader with shocking effect.
Sacrifice of Fools concerns itself with the Shian of Northern Ireland - McDonald's current home, and a consistent thematic underpinning to many of his novels - and how they live alongside the turmoil of the Northern Irish conflict and its complex politics. Focussing on one man, Andy Gillespie - a former Loyalist terrorist and Maze prisoner - who finds himself anew after a traumatic event while in prison and becomes a liaison between the Shian and the humanity they have to live with.
His belief that he understands the Shian and his hold on his precarious position are shattered by the actions of a serial murderer, and suspected by the police because of his past, he sets out with a Shian female to investigate the complex Shian communities and the murky Belfast underworld to catch the killer.
Ian McDonald here has created an effective and taut sf thriller. The plot itself is twisted and exciting, but has an internal consistency such that, by the end, the reader can understand and feel satisfied with this element. But, as in all of McDonald¹s novels, plot is not all. The psychology and belief systems of the Shian - so ostensibly human - are deep and difficult to comprehend but McDonald is able to insinuate the Shian upon the reader without recourse to paragraphs of bland explanation. He instead plays with the reader, using the character of a self- styled 'Shian specialist' to muddy the waters with his interpretation of Shian custom, which often bears little resemblance to the reality the reader is seeing.
Characterisation, as always in McDonald's fiction, is effective, and at times beautiful. It consistently moves the reader to think, not only of the Shian but of the effect they have had on the human population, and his portrayal of the internal confusion of Andy Gillespie and his human acquaintances - some radically opposed to the Shian, some wishing they were Shian, one entering the shadowlands between Shian and human - as they view anew their humanity and the certainties that have been blown away by the Shian arrival.
One 'characterisation' that is particulaly effective is that of Northern Ireland itself. McDonald's sense of place is all- pervasive and colours this novel throughout, giving it an extra dimension. It simply would not have been the same novel given a different location. The place of the Shian in the Loyalist- Protestant conflict is ambiguous, each side deeming them enemies or allies in line with their traditional hatreds, unable to see them as a force in themselves: this mirrors reality in the province, where an atheist must be classified as a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist. However, the Shian cannot as easily be classified, much as the two sides try.
As well as the political situation, McDonald is able to convey a tremendous atmosphere in this novel. The description of Belfast rings true and is written as only a resident could write them: the details are what makes the novel seem convincing and, here, the details provide colour and background. It is a rare author than can enable a reader to so comprehensively picture the setting, but McDonald manages admirably in Sacrifice of Fools.
Sacrifice of Fools is an excellent novel from one of the most consistently brilliant of British novelists. It sustains the tension and the interest of the reader throughout, has finely drawn and intense characterisation and a delicate though compelling sense of place. One of the finest novels of 1996.