For ten years, I've been singing the praises of Out on Blue Six, Ian McDonald's 1989 science fiction novel that defies description and beggars the imagination. It's been out of print for decades, but it's back in ebook form, and I was honored to be asked by McDonald to write the introduction for the new edition. Ian's given me permission to reproduce that intro in full -- as you'll read, this book is one of those once-in-a-generation, brain-melting flashes of brilliance that makes you fall in love with a writer's work forever.
Welcome, lucky reader, to a glad moment in literary history: the republication of Ian McDonald's magnificent 1989 novel "Out on Blue Six," a book I've read dozens of times, and by which I am still awed and delighted.
I won't try and summarize the plot. There's no point. Picture a 16-car pileup in Dr Seuss country, where the colliding zithermobiles are piloted by William Gibson's console cowboys and Mad Magazine caricatures, have P.K. Dick and Orwell do alternating rewrites on the text, and you'll be getting close to the kind of novel that this is.
Anyone can make soup. You just make some stock, bung in an ingredient or two, and simmer. Stew, on the other hand, is tricky. Combining a few ingredients is simple. Combining a hundred ingredients is hard. Most often, the soup ends up tasting of nothing, or of whatever the most overpowering flavour in the pot happens to be. But when you get an amazing stew, one of those traditional dishes from Louisiana or the French Riviera or certain parts of Mexico, the result is indescribably wonderful. Each of those flavours is somehow still perceptible in the mix, adding something to it, making an infinitely varied texture that is different every time you dip your spoon. Stews are things you remember for the rest of your life.
This is a masterful stew of a novel. McDonald is one of those pop-culture mavens who manages to combine the banal and the familiar with the profound and solemn, without ever being merely ironic. So when he narrates a football match, or adapts the Rosary prayer, or plays around with Orwell and Terry Gilliam, he's doing more than simply juxtaposing. He's teasing out the wonder that lives beneath each of them. He gathers up all the emotions that we've poured into our symbols and rituals and uses them to power a story that is as moving as it is flashily clever.
This is an important book. Not "important" in the sense of being difficult and dry and esoteric. Out on Blue Six is none of those things. It is fun, it is fast, it is convulsively funny, and it is packed with enough action for six books.
But it is important nevertheless. It's important because it does to all the sf that came before it what a Coltrane solo did to the musical conversation that had taken place among all his peers before he picked up his horn. This is a book that shows the unexpected connections between the high and the low, the serious and the frivolous, the sacred and the profane. It's a novel that marks the end of the Cold War and the start of a too-short techno-optimistic period, and it is prescient in its shrewd guesses about where all that optimism is likely to end.
Vast hordes of schoolkids and university undergrads are required to read and contrast Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Brave New World, and that's good as far as it goes. But imagine what a weird and fabulous world it would be if they had to have their minds blown by Out on Blue Six before they were allowed to write their term-papers.