There’s a technique that MacLeod uses in several novels which I call helical construction. In helical construction, the story is told in two interwoven strands, each strand entirely separate from the other, both progressing forward in time and joining at the end. Chapters alternate between the two strands. If you consider the events of the book chronologically, the events of the past strand all take place before any of the events of the future strand, but the reader encounters the two strands in tandem. This casts shadows in both directions in terms of plot, foreshadowing, reader knowledge and expectations, and subverts a lot of the traditional ways stories are told.
Apart from MacLeod I can only think of three other genre examples of helical construction, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1975), Iain Banks’ Use of Weapons (1990) and Alison Sinclair’s Legacies (1995). Sinclair has said that she was influenced by Le Guin. We know that MacLeod suggested this structure to Banks, and as MacLeod has certainly read The Dispossessed, I think it’s reasonable to assume that Le Guin is the vector of influence here.
The Dispossessed is a story about a man inventing a kind of physics, and issues of simultaneity and sequence are central to that. The book is about much more than that—indeed, it’s about so much more than that that almost nobody would talk about it in those terms, but those are the terms which the helical structure reinforces and supports. Each strand of the story ends with the protagonist moving between planets, so the end of the book has him both setting out and returning, fitting his home planet’s proverb of “True journey is return.”
It’s a fascinating structure, but rare, and one that only works for certain kinds of stories, so it’s interesting that MacLeod has returned to it so often, using it for The Stone Canal (1996), The Sky Road (1999) and Cosmonaut Keep (2000).
The reason it’s rare is because stories, by and large, “begin at the beginning, go on until they reach the end and then stop” as Lewis Carroll puts it. Whether or not they do that, we find stories unsatisfactory unless they have a climax, and we want that climax to come at the end. Victorian readers liked to have a long denouement after that climax, but we rarely have the patience for a short one these days, we don’t really want to read through what Patricia Wrede calls “Rewards and weddings” (think of the Star Wars medal scene), we want a story to end on the climax. A helical story isn’t two stories, though it may appear that way at first, it’s one story wound around, in such a way that the climax falls at the end of the book but in the middle of one strand of the story, which thus feeds back into the other strand. The middle, then, has to be the climax of both strands, and has to be satisfying that way. There’s generally a double climax, all happening at the end of the book but only half of it happening at the end of the chronologically viewed events of the story.
This description makes it sound more complicated than it is, but even so there are all kinds of problems with making this work at all, let alone with making it satisfying to the reader. There are problems with making both strands interesting, with having the events and information in the future strand not spoil the past strand, and with keeping both strands in tension with each other. It asks the reader to do a lot of work, to invest in two stories, even two sets of characters, keep them both straight and additionally figure out how they connect. The payoff really has to be worth it for this level of reader investment. Naturally it lends itself best to stories where there is a great deal of revelation, and where the details of how something could have happened are more interesting and more important than the fact that it did—the fact will already be evident to the reader from very early on, from the other strand.
It’s worth noting at this point the difference between a helical structure and a ratcheting one. A ratchet, like Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book (1992) or Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Heritage of Hastur (1975), has two points of view which alternate and may be widely separated, but they are taking place at the same time, with the story progressing in each in turn, and although you might go back to an earlier point with the character change, the story progresses with normal internal chronology. The reader doesn’t know anything ahead of the characters, and there is generally one climax as the characters come together. This is what MacLeod does, very effectively, in Learning the World (2005). With a ratchet, as with a helix, adding one chapter means adding two, and the pace in each strand has to be kept in tension. The distinction is not to do with separation of the strands, but with internal chronology. The particular beauty of the helix is that it twists and winds and wraps back, the second strand takes place after the first. A ratchet generally comes together and has one climax, or if it has two, they are consecutive in time.
Helical structure is rewarding but initially challenging for the reader. There are several potential issues that have to be dealt with. First is distinguishing the two strands. Macleod makes it obvious by having one of them always in first person and the other in third. In The Stone Canal and Cosmonaut Keep the future strands are in multiple third, in The Stone Canal close to omniscient, while the past strands are in first. (I’m using the term “past” for the strand set earlier, though it is of course also in our putative future!) In The Sky Road, the future strand is in first while the past strand is in very close third. Using this unmistakeable marker of point-of-view helps with chapter switching, you know where you are immediately. These books also all have very clearly marked chapters, with chapter titles as well as numbers. You’re not going to turn the page without noticing and be confused.
Secondly, there’s the issue of connecting the strands. If the strands don’t at first seem connected in any way, the reader is going to start asking why they’re in the same book. If it isn’t obvious (as it is in The Stone Canal) then there have to be some connections, parallels, and themes to hook them up.
The Stone Canal begins in the future strand, and introduces Jon Wilde, in the far future on another planet, and then in the second chapter gives you the same Jon Wilde in university in Glasgow in the 1970s. The thrill this gave me when I first read it can’t be overestimated, and it’s hard to see how this science fictional sucker punch could have been delivered in any other way—if I’d started with Wilde in university and gone slowly forward to him waking up next to a robot on New Mars it wouldn’t have been anything like the same. The science-fictional jolt of connection there is conveyed entirely through the structure. We just saw him waking up with a robot on another planet in the far future, and here he is talking about the Singularity in a student bar! I don’t think I’ve ever been so strongly hit with the feeling of “this is a future that could have me in it”. Besides, it’s only half of the punch, as will be described below.
What we have is the story of one man—two men and a woman, really, but essentially one man, Jonathan Wilde, libertarian, anarchist, and artificial intelligence. In the past strand we see him as a post-grad in the seventies, and follow his life and relationships with Myra, Reid, and Annette, in jumps throughout the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century, from Earth to Space to New Mars, and through the setting up of that strange society. In the future strand we follow him and Dee, a “gynoid”, a possibly conscious possibly sentient hybrid cyborg woman whose body is that of Wilde’s wife Annette, as they escape across New Mars. The future strand has much more action and much less realism than the past strand. It also has an alien planet in the process of being terraformed and a very odd society. Because Wilde is one man in both strands, the whole thing can be seen as the very long process of his growing up—insofar as he might be considered grown up even by the end.
We know from the beginning—from the first line of the book—that Jon Wilde died, and we slowly gather that Reid killed him. Our questions are how and where and why, and the answers, when we get them, are not all that satisfying, because the book has something more interesting to do than a murder investigation. The past strand doesn’t end, as we’d expect, with Wilde’s death or with changing planet (as we might expect, seeing two planets, and from the examples of The Dispossessed, Legacies, Cosmonaut Keep) but goes on in first person to his first post-life life, as Jay-Dub the robot. (So we only thought we saw the same person waking up next to a robot…) This switch is brilliant, and it’s most especially brilliant by giving us the end of the book—the most future part of the future and all the resolution—in first person. The past has unexpectedly overtaken the future and there is only one climax, because Wilde’s life bifurcated. The end of The Stone Canal subverts not just traditional story expectations but also our expectations of a helical structure. And if it ends with changing planets, it’s not with the central voyage of reaching New Mars, but with the final one of a return to Earth.
The Sky Road has a strand set in the near future and one set in the far future, both on Earth. They have completely separate characters and plots, and a lot of the tension between them arises out of trying to discover how Clovis’s world grew out of Myra’s. We learn early on that Myra is the Deliverer, and how she became that is one of our persistent questions as the book continues and which is answered only at the last moment of the past strand. The main connection between the strands is that Clovis is researching Myra, planning to write a biography, and his investigation of her life, so different from his own.
The book begins in the future strand, a future that has a strangely historic and pastoral feeling to it. OK, these people are building a spaceship, but they’re welding it out of boiler plate. And there’s an engineer caste of tinkers, who have their own very strange computers. But they drink beer and whisky, they’re in Scotland, they smoke, like all MacLeod characters, they fall in love and fall into bed. Clovis is doing a PhD. They may feel claustrophobic at the thought of light pollution, but they’re people much like us, and they’re used to having a three day weekend.
The protagonist of the past strand, Myra, who was a student in Glasgow in the seventies and who is much closer to us in time, feels much further from us. It’s partly her post-Communist cynicism and attitude, and partly her age. Myra is a great example of that rare thing in genre a genuinely old character—she’s been around a long time, and despite the various rejuvenations she’s genuinely different because of the length of life she’s lived through.
The climax of the book is the “deliverance”, how Myra became the Deliverer. We’ve gradually been learning how this world grew out of that—and of course the reader will also have read The Cassini Division and be aware that this is an alternate future, but I believe the book works without that extra layer. The moment of the deliverance is the revelatory climax, sealing what we have learned, but the end of the book is denoument, the vision of a green terraformed Mars over the shoulder of the statue of Myra. The resolution of the future strand is in Clovis beginning his new life as a tinker.
There are parallels and contrasts given us by the helical structure—old cynical woman and young naive man, wide world and narrow world, both of them experiencing work, romance with somebody far different in age, and a train trip south to/from Glasgow. The structure makes us notice these parallels and contrasts. Our questions mostly arise in the future strand and are answered in the past strand—why are people living longer, what happened at the deliverance, what’s up with Merrial, what about Clovis’s religion, who are the tinkers? This echoes the theme that Clovis states early on about the importance of history to the present and the future.
In Cosmonaut Keep the two strands at first seem to have come not just from completely different books, but completely different kinds of science fiction. The past strand is near future communist Scotland, lots of computer tech, a first encounter with aliens. The future strand takes place on a planet called Mingulay with light-speed spaceships, calculations painstakingly done on paper, and four kinds of aliens—none of them the ones humanity is encountering for the first time in the past strand. Apart from the co-incidence of surnames of the characters, there’s nothing at first to connect them, and it takes a lot of the book before it starts to fit together, before we even have the right questions. By the time we get to the end, to the revelation that Matt wasn’t the First Navigator but that Gregor is, we know or can deduce everything.
The main thing that’s great about Cosmonaut Keep is the worldbuilding. The very idea of the Second Sphere is awesome—worlds settled by intelligent squid and dinosaurs (which happen to be the “greys” of ufology) and other hominids, all living and trading at light speed, hundreds of years away from Earth and disconnected from it. The culture of Mingulay is fascinating, with its cosmonaut caste with their Great Project, programming without computers, and their thoroughly worked out Lucretian non-religious religion. The past strand world is less fun, instead of hooking us with details it hooks us with fast moving plot and an engaging narrator.
The past strand is told all in first person from Matt Cairns “an artist not a technician” hacker. He comes from Communist Scotland, he’s a Webbly (The International Workers of the World Wide Web) and his strand of the book moves at lightning speed, from Edinburgh to the US and then into space, liaising with the aliens, building a starship.
The future strand concerns his descendants in Mingulay generations later, after more than two hundred years on the planet, and is told in multiple third person. We spend most time in the point of view of Gregor Cairns, but we also visit the head of his grandfather James, his friend Elizabeth, and a trader from Nova Babylonia. This strand is slower—the world takes more explanation and exploration, it’s full of fascinating detail.
The helical structure causes us to ask questions—firstly, how do these two strands connect, secondly, how did Matt get to Mingulay (which evolves into the question of navigation), thirdly, how have Matt and the other cosmonauts kept young, fourthly, what’s up with the Great Project? The answer to the first two questions are the climax to the early strand, the other two are answered by Matt as the climax to the late strand. Both strands end with Matt and other people getting into the Bright Star and going somewhere, not entirely sure of their navigation.
The helical structure gives us other parallels. Gregor falls in love with Lydia, then realises he really loves Elizabeth. Matt does the same with Jadey and Camila. Gregor’s romance ends happily, Matt ends without either woman—though as Gregor is his descendant, he can’t have lived celibate! Then there are the old computers—the legacy geeks in the early strand, and the legacy code with nothing to run it on in the late one. Computing resouces are a major theme in both parts, as is the question of negotiating with mysterious aliens, and human groups with their own ideological motivations.
All three of these are excellent books, and using this unusual structure makes them stronger and more effective than if they’d been told conventionally. And that’s really nifty.