Ken Macleod, The Human Front (Gollancz Books, 2003)

"Come on, Matheson, ye know fine well whit the issue is. It isnae where they came frae. It's where they go, and whit they dae to folk."

The Human Front is a novella-sized work, but includes so many ideas that it seems much bigger. Fans of intriguing alternate history are unlikely to be disappointed. The lead character is John Matheson, from the Scottish island of Lewis, in a timeline where WWII never ended. Even when an American flying saucer dropped an atom bomb on Moscow. Other stories might use such an event as a main theme, but Macleod throws it in as back history.

It is the mystery of the discs, who invented them and who flies them, which forms the central thread. The saucers are known as AHABs, an acronym meaning Advanced High Altitude Bomber. In classic UFO tradition, they can outperform all known aircraft, and none have ever been shot down over enemy territory. But strangely, as Matheson notes when he attempts some clandestine research, AHAB technology has not filtered down to any other products, civilian or military. What fuels his interest is, in part, a chance encounter he had as a boy, which led him to discover something very disturbing about what is inside the saucers.

As with much of Macleod's other works, The Human Front includes a strong left-wing political theme. Matheson's experience and constantly changing perspective encourage us all to think for ourselves, rather than accept any doctrine on blind trust. There's also wry humour, such as when Matheson joins a group of political activists known as the Human Front, who spray paint slogans such as "Forget King Billy And The Pope. Uncle Joe's Our Only Hope." Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, protesting anti-war sympathisers in the totalitarian, Fourth Reich United States chant 'Hey! Hey! JFK! How many kids did you kill today?'

Macleod creates a lot of fun, name checking key players from our own WWII and Cold War eras, and tossing in theories from early UFO lore. But the story never becomes clichéd or tired. In some ways, it is like a classic slice of 1950's science fiction, dictated from the modern day. The characterisation is solid, and like all the best stories, leaves the reader wanting to know more. Sadly, there is no more planned, but Macleod does explore the general theme in his other, much longer works, most notably the recently complete Engines Of Light series, which begins with Cosmonaut Keep.

The Human Front was first available as a limited run of 400 hard backs and 500 paperbacks, all of which are now sold out. It next appeared in a four-author hardback, Infinities (Gollancz Books, 2002). This, however, is a non-standard book size, and may be awkward for those with limited shelf space. The review version is The Human Front (Gollancz Books, 2003), and is a Binary 5 imprint, so called because it features two authors, and two front covers. In this edition, Macleod's story is teamed with A Writer's Life by Eric Brown. Readers outside of the UK may have to import the book until a US publisher picks it up. In the meantime, help is at hand, and enquiries should be sent to mailorder@andromedabook.co.uk.

[Nathan Brazil]