In 2008, Chris Beckett published the novel Marcher to little acclaim. A later release, Dark Eden (2012) met a much better response (it was nominated for the BSFA and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award), and Beckett decided to thoroughly revise his earlier novel and re-release it. Using his five additional years of experience, he honed in on the story he had wanted to tell and republished Marcher in 2014. With the original version checking in at roughly 300 pages and the revised version 200 pages, it would seem Beckett did more paring-down than anything. Marcher is a dense but brisk read with its finger on the pulse of subject matter rarely seen in SFF.
Social work is perhaps far from the center of the science fiction radar, but in Marcher, Beckett pulls it into the spotlight. Told from a handful of perspectives, the novel represents all sides of the field, from client to case worker, government official to social outlier. Because of this, there are moments the novel feels like the fix-up it is. But given the themes, focusing on certain viewpoints at certain times is natural, even perhaps necessary.
The setting is near-future England. In keeping with real-world trends, social deviants are isolated and placed in living communities (ironically) called Social Inclusion Zones. The Zones are gated; only the well-behaved are allowed to enter and exit, while the remainder are kept apart from “normal” society. Further complicating Zone life are strange little things called seeds, or slips. A few minutes after ingestion, the glowing blue balls shift a person into a parallel world, similar to ours, but different in the details. Shifters arrive and leave unexpectedly, and this trans-spatial immigration/emigration means that shifters can suddenly appear, commit a crime, and then shift to a parallel world without local authorities having any hope of knowing which world they shifted to, or apprehending them.
Living in the Zone is Tammy Blows, also known as Tammy Pendant and a variety of other names. Passed between foster homes but eventually taken back by her negligent mother, the fifteen-year-old has become rebellious. Tammy needs and wants help, but lacks the social skills to get it. The circumstances of her life do not allow for peace or stability, and getting mixed up with a perverted shifter with a bag of seeds is the last thing she needs. Cyril Burkitt is an aging social worker getting ready to retire. His retirement party goes well, until he begins reflecting honestly on the state of the system. Carl Bones is a young man with no outlet for his angst. He lounges around the Zone, getting in fights and looking for trouble. Trouble finds him, in the form of a cult practicing a narrow interpretation of Norse mythology. Carl is caught up in events seemingly beyond his control, and shifting is just the beginning of his worries.
But the central thread of Marcher is the story of Charles Bowen. As an immigration officer, his job is to watch for shifters and do his best to mitigate their effect on his world. When called in to meet captured shifters, he tries to get as much information as possible about where they came from to learn more about the parallel worlds, as well as prevent them from slipping unnoticed into Bristol society. Battling his own personal demons, Bowen goes about his work with a rigidity rooted in the belief that his job is worthwhile. The troubles of Zone residents appear not to be improving, but his role is fulfilling a necessary social function. The opposing views of the residents and the government, as well as his own, simmer in his mind day after day. It takes a social tragedy to shake Bowen from his malaise and bring matters to a head.
Marcher is a subtly scathing remonstrance of England’s social welfare system. The Zone is an obvious metaphor for the real-world living circumstances of people targeted by the system as social deviants, and shifting a metaphor for the ease with which immigrants (legal and illegal) and transients easily move in and out of English society, and the perceived trouble they bring in tow. The title refers not to any sense of cadence or rhythm, but to a man who walks a boundary, protecting what’s within from without and vice-versa. Bowen is that proverbial marcher, and Beckett questions what he is guarding and whether the guarding is necessary. Clearly, Beckett doesn’t see the current solution as functional.
Beckett, himself a social worker, brings to the page a very realistic feel to the experiences of social workers and those they are trying to help. Tammy and Carl both feel exactly like people my mother (also a social worker) has worked with, and Charles and Jazamine’s feelings echo her optimistic despair that, in the face of the neverending grind of the job, something can still be done to make the situation better for her clients. Beckett’s view is expressed best in the novel’s sublimely transcendent ending, which resorts neither to melodramatics nor false hopes.
Half holding their hands up in despair and half doing what they can with what little they have, Beckett and Bowen go beyond critiquing the social welfare system to offer a partial remedy to the situation. It is a hopeful first step, rather than a fix to the world’s social ills. And the sentiment fits: all that can be done is continue gathering knowledge and extend the hand partway, hoping more people will reach out to grasp it. The issues on the table are not black and white, and thankfully Beckett does not attempt to resolve them in similarly simplistic fashion. The denouement is reflectively mature.
In the end, Marcher is an intelligent, multi-perspective, science fictional refutation of the English social welfare system, told through the eyes of people both regulating and regulated by that system. Shifts between parallel worlds and life inside social inclusion zones are the metaphors underpinning stories of people trying to come to terms with their situations. I have not read the original version of Marcher, but the revised version possesses bite and purpose. Drawing attention to issues that are being swept under the rug by government but evident to anyone who pays attention to the evolution of Western society, Beckett presents said realities both symbolically and mimetically, criticizes what is being done, ponders the possibilities of what could be done, and offers an olive branch in hopes that the lives of immigrants and the under-privileged might someday be better understood and integrated into what authorities perceive as normal society. I’m uncertain the symbolism of the parallel worlds and the real-world social ideals under discussion always run 1:1, and the mirror metaphor is a touch overt, but the message remains clear. Given that these issues reach deeper and deeper into society every day, Marcher is a relevant, timely novel.
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