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The Summer Isles by Ian R. MacLeod

The Summer Isles (2005)

by Ian R. MacLeod

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An alternative history through the eyes of a gay Oxford don. The premise is that the Germans won the First World War, their March 1918 offensive succeeded and the war ended in the August with the defeat of France and Britain. The Peace Treaty strips Britain of a number of colonies and overseas territories in much the same way that the Germans were in our own history. Britain has a violent period in the 1920s and a former corporal, John Arthur, becomes the leader of a Modernist movement.

The story starts in the early part of 1940 when the Empire Alliance has been in power for at least a decade. A number of short victorious wars has restored much of the Imperial prestige lost at the end of the Great War. Although all seems harmonious it is a dangerous time to be different and not to look British. Geoffrey Brook (also Griffin Brooke) has found his way to be an Oxford Professor through his tenuous connection to John Arthur, the Prime Minister. Arthur mentioned Brook as an influence on his childhood when Brook taught him at school. Brook has no recollection of Arthur, but went along with it anyway.

Much of the story is told through flashbacks where Brook reminisces of things that have happened to him during his life. Realising that he is dying Brook resolves to find out what happened to a missing acquaintance of his, a Post Office Censor that he had illicit liaisons with in an allotment shed. One night his acquaintance disappears, Brook believes that it is because he is gay and worries that the Knights of Saint George (KSG) will be along soon to arrest him also. However it turns out that the acquaintance was married to a Polish Jew and the whole family has been taken because of that. With nothing really to lose Brook tries to find out where the Jews went, the newsreels said they went to the Summer Isles off the north of Scotland. However there has been no news since.

This is the story of a dying man coming to terms with his life, he feels inadequate intellectually and believes he's only got to become an Oxford don because the better men have all been silenced by the Empire Alliance. He worries about the shallowness of his sexual life, and the fear that homosexuality being illegal means that he will be arrested and put in a camp for 'treatment'. It's worth noting that although there are necessary references there is nothing explicit here, the encounters are largely left to the reader's imagination. The author clearly transmits an angst ridden guilt at making the best of each furtive encounter as Brook can never know when he'll next meet someone suitable. There is also a loss of not being able to live life with a lover.

There are a number of inter-woven plot threads and this makes for a good story, there are a couple of bits where I guessed what was going to happen, and then was wrong. That made it more enjoyable. WHat I also enjoyed was how the author had taken the consequences of losing the Great War that German suffered and then mapped those on to Britain. Not all of them were completely identical, and it was those changes, making it more rationally British, that I enjoyed. I also wondered how long it would take you to realise that you were living in a fascist state if it slowly happened around you and you weren't one of the people being targeted.

Overall both enjoyable and thought provoking. ( )
  jmkemp | Jul 5, 2016 |
This is another alternate historical novel set in Britain in 1940 - but this time we have not been defeated by the Nazis, because there are no Nazis - instead in this world Britain was defeated by Germany in the First World War, not the Second. The consequences as depicted here are a mirror image of what happened in Germany in the real world - so much so in fact, that it rather loses impact: a Treaty of Versailles that imposes reparations against Britain, rampant inflation, a populist demagogue coming to prominence who then, after increasing electoral success, is allowed to assume leadership of the country in the tragically mistaken belief that he can be controlled. This is followed by an Enabling Act allowing this man John Arthur and his movement, the Empire Alliance, to rule by decree, and to repress Jews (who are exiled to the islands off the Scottish coast in the novel's title) and homosexuals (who are sent for "treatment" to the Isle of Man); there is even a Reichstag Fire equivalent as Buckingham Palace is burnt down, killing King George and Queen Mary.

All this is the backdrop to the central narrative, told by a dying Oxford academic, Griffin aka Geoffrey Brooke, who taught John Arthur as a young man with a different identity and had a relationship with him, before the young man went off to fight in the trenches and was supposedly killed on the Somme, being rediscovered by chance by Brooke years later under his new identity. The author paints the dystopian society quite effectively and the writing is very good overall, but I did find it dragged in places; the action jumps around a fair bit between 1940 and 1914 and sometimes this gave me the feeling the novel was drifting rather in a way I found a little tiresome. I would certainly read more by this author, though. ( )
  john257hopper | Feb 16, 2016 |
Rating: As close to five full stars as makes no difference

The Book Report: England in 1940...shiny happy people, none the worse for wear after their crushing 1916 defeat at the hands of the Hun. All the mod cons in every home! All the freedoms any one man can handle responsibly! Where did the Jews go?

Why do you want to know that, faggot?

Griffin Brooke fails to heed the social conventions of his fascist state, England, first by being a homosexual, and second by failing to stop asking questions when it's obvious to a complete fool that it's only going to get him in trouble to keep going. He knows he's a second-rater, he knows that his tutorship at Oxford is a joke because he's no brainiac or original thinker, and he knows that, after the defeat of England in the Great War, he's lost his one true love to death.

Only he hasn't. His younger love, his boy-man, the other half of his soul, is Francis, lost at nineteen in 1916; Francis reincarnated himself as John Arthur, a Fascist thug, and has publicly acknowledged Griffin's role in his life as "inspiring" him. The anniversary of John Arthur's rise is coming up. Griffin, now elderly and also terminally ill, is required to play a part in the party piece planned for the masses. The trouble the Powers That Be face is, Griffin doesn't care any more.

His eyes are open to the horror of the state he is complicit with. He even doesn't care who, now that he's dying, knows he's gay.

He is, in short, a very dangerous man. And he plans to use his dangerous knowledge...John Arthur used to bottom for me!...to ruin the horrible plans and change the unthinkable future of his England.

Or die trying.

My Review: Chilling. Very, very chilling. The 1998 novella of the same name won Hugo and Sidewise awards for a very good reason. Very, very good. Almost, only a hair away from, excellent. The pleasure of reading the book is close to unmarred, and my quibbles are just that...quibbles.

They involve the Francis Eveleigh/John Arthur transition, and the subsequent co-opting of Griffin with a golden chain and muzzle...why, suddenly, do the PTB opt to alienate him? Why not simply kill him?

And Griffin himself, opting for a life of anonymous sex, can't possibly have imagined that he was getting away with it. No state this repressive would not know this important and dangerous secret, and act more effectively to neutralize it...provide him with a beard, give him a steady stream of men, bob's your uncle!

But all of that aside, I can't imagine how this idea occurred to the straight Mr. MacLeod, and I applaud vigorously the way in which he presented the closeted life. I am impressed by this book on so many levels. And I am delighted that I read it in both versions. It's worth seeking out. ( )
1 vote richardderus | Sep 10, 2006 |
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Pour l'historien, il n'y a pas de miracle. Tout ce qui s'est passé, il l'explique, le rendant rétrospectivement inéluctable.

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On this as on almost every Sunday evening, I find a message from my acquaintance on the wall of the third cubicle of the Gents beside Christ Church Meadow.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 193308300X, Hardcover)

Signed limited edition of 500 with introduction by the author. This is the original novel from which the World Fantasy Award-winning novella 'The Summer Isles' was excerpted. The novel is approximately two-thirds greater in length. This is the first time it has been available in the English-speaking world. Bound in ecologically friendly materials; printed on acid-free paper. This edition took top honors for book design at the 2005 Chicago Book & Media Show.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:22 -0400)

Winner of the World Fantasy Award and the Sidewise Award for Alternate History: A pastel-hued yet chilling alternate vision of England, The Summer Isles views the nightmare that the country has become since Germany's victory in the Great War, through the eyes of a man whose life lies close to the heart of history In 1918 the Allies were defeated. A closeted gay teacher, Griffin Brooke has witnessed the monumental changes his nation has undergone since being crushed by Germany's superior fighting forces twenty-two years earlier. First came the financial collapse and crippling inflation, then the fascist uprising in the thirties that brought John Arthur to power. Now, in 1940, England has resurrected itself-but at a terrible cost. With homosexuality decreed a serious crime against the state by the dictator who was once his most avid student, Griffin has remained silent while England's gay population has mysteriously dwindled . . . along with the nation's Jews. But in the twilight of his years, elevated to the role of tutor in an Oxford college, Griffin is getting anxious. Thinking back on a life lived in shadow-and on his one great love affair with a young soldier during the height of the Great War-Griffin knows that revealing a secret he has guarded for decades could have devastating consequences for Britain, the world, and especially for the fascist tyrant Arthur, who cites his former teacher as a mentor and major influence.… (more)

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