The Great Wheel by Ian R MacLeod

Harcourt Brace, 1997. 458p.

Global warming has come and stayed, one of its ramifications being that only Christianity has survived as a major world religion. There is a division between Europeans and people from outwith Europe who are called Borderers. This is so marked that Borderers can die merely from contact with Europeans.

Father John Alston of The Holy Apostolic Church of Rome is a priest sent to the Magulf, a part of The Endless City which runs all the way along North Africa up through the Near East and peters out somewhere in the Russian steppes. There he acts as a kind of pharmacist dispensing medicines to those denizens of the Magulf who come to the clinic attached to his church. The diagnoses, though, are performed by a machine, known as a doctor. Europeans in the Magulf wear special gloves to prevent touching the locals, gloves which burn up when discarded, and keep mostly to the Zone, a gated area where few Borderers are present. Borderers working in the Zone are protected from the contaminating European viruses by taking a drug called lydrin.

In his ministrations Father John comes to recognise that there is a higher incidence of leukæmia in the Magulf than there ought to be. He links this to the chewing of a leaf called koiyl and with the help of a Borderer named Laura Kalmar sets out to find the source of the contamination, which may be near a nuclear bomb site dating from the attempts to prevent immigrants moving from Africa to Europe when the sea levels started to rise.

In many ways this is a conventional tale of a missionary priest who goes a bit weird when he encounters the locals. A nice touch is the fact that Father John’s bishop is a woman. There is an added subplot about John’s brother, who is in a coma after almost killing himself, which in turn may have been due to his guilt about the murder one year of a Borderer girl from the traveling shows which came annually to their boyhood town. Father John’s ambivalence about his faith is a rather well worn staple, though.

This book is much better proof read than the editions I read of MacLeod’s otherwise excellent subsequent novels The Light Ages and The House Of Storms. Here there was a span count of zero, but I did spot two sunks, unfortunately.

It is a measure of its complexity and slight strangeness that The Great Wheel is actually quite difficult to summarise. MacLeod can undoubtedly write. He handles and delineates character very well indeed.

Recommended if you like your SF with a touch of difference.

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