Voidhawk.com Book and film reviews

6Feb/110

“The Stone Canal” by Ken Macleod

stonecanal

Ken MacLeod's second novel is simultaneously both a sequel and a prequel to “The Star Fraction”. The book is split into two main plot threads – one starts in Glasgow in 1970 and ends in orbit around Jupiter over a century later. The second plot thread takes place on a distant human colony called New Mars, several million light years (and a corresponding amount of time) away from the other plot thread.

The New Mars plot thread starts with a clone appearing on the planet of New Mars. He has the memories of Jonathon Wilde, an anarchist politician who once controlled a nuclear arsenal and is blamed for losing World War 3. He finds himself in what initially seems like a nightmarish libertarian society of humans and intelligent androids who exist on the inhospitable planet. He meets up with a rebellious female android and discovers that his old friend and nemesis David Reid is now the ruler of New Mars.

The Earth-based plot thread features the life story of Wilde, from his beginnings as a student politician in Glasgow through the tumultuous 21st Century as shown in “The Star Fraction”, and ending up as slave labour helping to build the New Mars wormhole for the “Fast Folk”, a group of powerful AIs who have developed their intellect far beyond human capacity.

The plot is again highly original, although the New Mars setting does possibly feel a bit derivative of other dystopian science fiction settings. There are again plenty of ideas and concepts as well as some well-thought out technological advances, and description of the impact of those advances on society.

Like his other books, this is very well written, although the prose is usually more straightforward than in “The Star Fraction”. The characters are generally interesting, although the motivation of some of the New Mars characters does seem a bit obscure. In general, the New Mars plot is largely less interesting and inferior to the Earth-based plot or the plot of “The Star Fraction”, relying too much on dystopian SF clichés and unlikeable characters, with the effect that this is possibly one of his lesser books.

In summary, well-written and with plenty of good ideas but the sometimes tedious New Mars plot thread lets the book down a bit.

Rating : 6 / 10

6Feb/110

“The Star Fraction” by Ken Macleod

starfraction

Ken Macleod's first book was 1995's “The Star Fraction”. It is set in a mid-21st Century Britain that has broken up into dozens of tiny mini-states, all with radically different ideologies – from anarchists to fundamentalist Christians – all ruled over by an absentee monarchy and the United Nations military.

The main character is Moh Khan, a former political activist for a socialist political group now working as a lowly Security Guard-for-hire guarding a science laboratory. After a raid on the laboratory he meets up with Janis Taine, a scientist on the run from the UN and, later, Jordan Brown, a teenage refugee trying to escape from his life in a fundamentalist enclave.

The central technological concept is the development of a conscious Artificial Intelligence, which could gain some measure of control over the networked computers on which the world depends. As the book wears on Moh realises that this rogue AI is the culmination of a program his father was writing for a revolutionary group dedicated to bring down the current status quo of world politics.

The plot is complicated to summarise, and also complicated to follow whilst reading the book. MacLeod drops the reader into the middle of the story and uses only a minimal amount of exposition which means that some thought is required to understand what is going on. By the end of the book it does all make sense, but people looking for a quick read may want to look elsewhere. The writing style is rarely straightforward either, with Ken throwing in unusual sentence construction and obscure cultural references. The overall effect works very well, the writing seems fresh and original while still being comprehensible, although the innovative use of language makes it even less of a quick read. There are even a few subtle but often amusing jokes thrown in.

MacLeod has an in-depth knowledge of some of the more unusual political ideologies (such as libertarianism or communism) and several of them appear here, with either the societies or the character's motivations often being based on one or other of the political movements. People without knowledge of the ideologies might miss out on some of the references, but it offers an interesting viewpoint on possible ways of life that differ radically from the current British society. MacLeod refuses to endorse or condemn most of the viewpoints (although he’s obviously not keen on the religious fundamentalism of Jordan’s home); instead the reader is presumably being left to draw their own conclusions.

The focus on the effects of futuristic computing technology and political ideology could easily have lead to a dull book but MacLeod's writing makes it all highly entertaining, as well as being interesting. The characterisation is fairly good, although nothing special, and the dialogue is as well written as the rest of the prose.

In summary, this is a well-written, entertaining book with more ideas than a dozen lesser science fiction novels.

Rating : 8½ / 10

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