How can I review a book that's essentially indescribable? For one thing, A HISTORY MAKER isn't really a novel but a Stapledonian future-history in miniature, although it's too short and succinct to fit comfortably into that rambling genre. Perhaps the closest to Gray in style, wit, and profoundly enraged (civilized) humanism is my favorite Italian, Umberto Eco -- but A HISTORY MAKER remains apart from BAUDOLINO or any other surreal, fantasy or science fiction novel I've ever read. I've devoured about 3 or 4 such books each week for the past fifty-five years, so I'm a fair judge.
If A HISTORY MAKER isn't a novel, nor a full-blown future history, what is it? It certainly is not, as the London DAILY TELEGRAPH blurb has it, "Sir Walter Scott meets Rollerball." I bought the book a few years ago because a friend recommended it, but when I got it home I did a double-take at that awful blurb, which I dare say was meant as a come-on. It turned me off so I put A HISTORY MAKER up on a high shelf till this week. I'll grant the strong possibility of Borderer Walter Scott's influence, but comparing this book to "Rollerball" is hyter-styte, as Wat Dryhope might say. So's the literary review labeling the language in this book "futuristic," when it's nocht but auld lang syne Scots Lowland tongue.
"Rollerball" as I recall pandered to the superficially grown-up but socially preadolescent male who can't deal with his own testosterone but lacks the vigor to bash everything in sight -- and therefore does so vicariously. A HISTORY MAKER starts out misleading the reader into thinking that it might just be another one of those silly "heroic" war stories. But strobblin' Wat makes an unusual and highly imperfect hero -- confused, dour, educated, ambivalent, attractive to women, hating bloodshed but a braw warrior, a natural leader. I see him as Gray's future incarnation of Robert Bruce, who was no pulp fiction cowboy hero, but one of history's genuinely great men. Bruce, too, embodied the same characteristics; they even share a preference for ponies instead of gigantic warhorses.
Once we realize that Wat lives, as Walt Whitman wrote, "in and out of the game, watching and wondering at it," Gray has begun the process of standing the whole genre of male violence and hero worship on its doitered heid, and he keeps on till any sane person would be embarrassed ever again to take The Alamo, The Somme, Rambo or Iraq seriously. At the same time the author understands that male boredom and feelings of inadequacy are at the root of it all, and he sympathizes, as should we all. None the less, the older women, not the men, are the saviors of civilization in this book.
I can't really describe A HISTORY MAKER. I can only revel in Gray's use of language, the punning names, the snatches of folklore and off-color doggerel, the tweaking of asinine Thatcherism/Toryism and love of liberty, and -- in the finest sci-fi tradition -- the casual way in which his Scotland of the 23rd Century is introduced to us. The story ends like a Mozart symphony, exactly when it should. As would occur in a genuine historical document, background, a glossary of Scots words, and what-happened-next get explained in five "historical" chapters after the story's end, plus a postscript. We could compare these post-chapters to Tolkein's in THE RETURN OF THE KING, but Gray's are as hysterical as they are historical -- parodies. After such a wrap-up there can be no sequel, so enjoy A HISTORY MAKER while it lasts. It's a brief book but nigh-hand perfect.