Voidhawk.com Book and film reviews


“The Execution Channel” by Ken Macleod


Macleod’s next novel returned from far future sci-fi to Earth and is his most contemporary novel to date. The focus of this book is on the ‘War on Terror’, set a few years in the future it details a Britain damaged by its alliance with America and a world under increasing strain due to a bloody war in the Middle East. Although it is not immediately obvious, the novel is set in a slightly alternate universe where Al Gore won the 2000 presidential election and an alliance of America and Britain faces the twin threats of a Middle East and Central Asia ravaged by Al Qaeda and Islamic Fundamentalism and a loose alliance of anti-American powers between France, Russia and the resurgent communist states in China and North Korea. The novel starts with a vaguely-worded message sent by Alec Travis, a British soldier in Central Asia, warning his sister Roisin that she may be in danger in her current position, as part of a peace camp protesting against the American airbase at RAF Leuchars in Fife, Scotland. Before abandoning the peace camp Roisin manages to take some covert photographs of a mysterious device arriving by plane at the air base. A few hours later the air base is destroyed by what appears to be a nuclear explosion, and when this event is followed by a serious of terrorist attacks on various British targets, Roisin knows that she needs to get the pictures out to the public. Before long, she comes to the attention of both MI5 and the CIA, who quickly become suspicious of Roisin, her brother and especially her father, computer expert James Travis who, unknown to Roisin, is also working for the French intelligence service. The rest of the novel focuses on Roisin’s and James’ attempts to meet up while avoiding their pursuers, and the attempts of both Roisin, James, the various intelligence services and conspiracy theorist blogger Mark Dark to figure out just who is behind the series of terrorist attacks and what really happened at RAF Leuchars. Eventually, the novel comes to a surprising conclusion, which is cleverly foreshadowed early in the book, the foreshadowing being concealed by some cunning disinformation.

It is fairly refreshing after reading a number of Science Fiction novels which make plenty of coded messages and allegories to the War on Terror to read a Science Fiction novel that is explicitly about the War on Terror. Macleod manages to make some interesting (although arguable) points about the War, and thankfully manages to avoid preaching any one particular point of view. The effects of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath on Britain are convincingly described, without ever getting too close to the actual attacks. Macleod also does a good job of dealing with the online aspects of the plot, all too often fiction reveals itself to be a bit illiterate regarding the Internet but Macleod obviously knows what he is talking about. Once it is finally explained the plot does seem to make sense, although parts of the plot do come out of left-field and perhaps would only entirely make sense to those of us who have read a certain classic Science Fiction work.

The quality of the writing is, as usual with Macleod, good and the characterisation is generally strong although some of the supporting characters do feel a bit under-developed and James Travis’ motivations are frustratingly opaque (even to himself).

The novel’s biggest problem isn’t that it has any particular single flaw or weakness but somehow it still feels some way from being Macleod at its best during the middle part of the novel. After the shock of the initial attacks has faded the novel is arguably not particularly exciting, and although the characters are interesting enough it is difficult to really care about them or their predicament too much (especially as a large part of that predicament is self-inflicted).

In summary, this is an interesting and topical story that is well written and has a reasonably good plot; it does drag a little bit in the middle but the conclusion does make up for this to some extent.

Rating : 8 / 10


“Learning The World : A Novel of First Contact” by Ken Macleod


After eight novels and several shorter works some elements of Macleod’s stories were starting to be overused a bit so 2005’s “Learning the World” was a refreshing change – a novel not partially set in Scotland and with very little mention of A.I.s, Singularity Theory or obscure left-wing politics.

The fundamental premise of the novel is revealed in its subtitle – “A Novel of First Contact” – this is a book that returns to a once-popular but now often neglected (at least in novels) subgenre of Science Fiction – the First Contact novel. In this case the contact is initiated by the crew of the eccentrically named starship “But the Sky, My Lady! The Sky!” - a huge generation starship full of human colonists travelling on a centuries-long voyage to found a new human colony in a previously-unexplored star system. They believe the star system to be uninhabited, a reasonable assumption because millennia of human exploration of space have not found any sign of any sentient alien races. However, their assumption in this case is not correct and they are surprised to discover as they decelerate into the star system that one of the planets is already inhabited.

The planet is called Ground by its inhabitants; a winged race described irreverently by the main human character as ‘alien space bats’. They are intelligent, civilised but several centuries of technological and scientific progress behind the humans, still in an early industrial stage where they may have universities and scientists and a stable society but where the concept of a heavier-than-air flying machine is still regarded as the stuff of science fiction. They are however advanced enough that Darvin, an astronomer, quickly realises the implications of the new comet he has just found – a comet that appears to be decelerating in defiance of the laws of physics. The inhabitants of Ground have no way to contact what they suspect may be an alien spacecraft, and they are also distracted by a potential conflict between two of their major military powers, as well as some controversial questions raised by Darvin and his fellow scientists about their civilisation’s treatment of some of the semi-sentient lesser species on their planet.

The incoming humans are also unsure how to respond. The main character, a teenage girl called Atomic Discourse Gale believes they should try to contact the inhabitants of Ground, but the more senior members of the expedition introduce a ban on communications while they study the problem, using their technology to spy on the planet while they ponder what to do. A large part of the human part of the book is based around the diary entries in Gale’s public ‘biolog’ as she wrestles with the implications of finding alien life and her exasperation at the actions of the older members of the crew. Gale’s biolog does seems likely to be a topical reference to the blogs that were starting to become a major part of the Internet society around the time the book was written, and its use is effective in making her an engaging character.

This is a book that would easily have fitted into the so-called Golden Age of science fiction, it is a classic Science Fiction story in the tradition of Arthur C Clarke or Poul Anderson, although naturally the technology and physics is updated to modern standards. The novel largely ignores the political dimensions of Macleod’s other novels, instead concentrating on issues such as scientific progress and how to deal with encountering an alien civilisation. It makes an entertaining, interesting and compelling story, although one flaw is the slightly rushed (although admittedly clever) ending.

Both the human and alien protagonists are interesting and entertaining characters, both largely used to introduce the reader to their respective worlds. Atomic Discourse Gale provides a viewpoint on her world, the generation starship she was born in that is the only world she knows while Darvin and his colleagues are used to provide an introduction to their species’ society that skilfully avoids clumsy exposition.

In summary, this is a good novel that sees Macleod moving away from the premises of his other novels and instead choosing to write an entertaining modernisation of the “First Contact” novel subgenre.

Rating : 9/10


“Newton’s Wake” by Ken Macleod


After the “Engines of Light” trilogy Macleod reverted to writing stand-alone Science Fiction novels. The first of those was “Newton’s Wake”. The world of this novel is in some ways similar to his earlier books, in some ways different. It is the 24th Century, several hundred years after a cataclysmic singularity occurred on Earth. In the middle of a war between Europe and the USA a military Artificial Intelligence had become fully self-aware leading to what the survivors would later call the “Hard Rapture” as the A.I. spread itself through the world’s computer systems, spawning new A.I.s and disregarding the wellbeing of the humans it was quickly surpassing. Many humans died, others were engulfed in the explosion of technological development and ended up with their minds boosted so that they became unknowable posthumans. Not long after the Hard Rapture the A.I.s and the posthumans disappeared into deep space leaving behind a battered Earth and a plethora of mysterious and powerful artefacts scattered across Earth and dozens of other nearby star systems. One of those artefacts is the ‘Skein’, a system of wormholes stretching across dozens of star systems.

The main character is Lucinda Carlyle, a member of the infamous Carlyle clan – a family poised somewhere between being daring entrepreneurs and organised criminals. Her job is to explore the Skein, looking for undiscovered posthuman artefacts to exploit, a dangerous but lucrative job. She finds more than she expected when she stumbles upon the previously unexplored planet of Eurydice and finds a thriving human society there who escaped Earth in the Hard Rapture and have been living in isolation ever since. There is inevitable culture shock between the Carlyles and the inhabitants of Eurydice, especially when other factions such as the Knights of Enlightment (keen to exploit posthuman technology) or the Communist DK get involved. It also throws the previously idyllic civilisation of Eurydice into turmoil. It was formed after a disagreement during the Hard Rapture between two groups – the Runners who wanted to get as far away from the singularity as possible and the Returners who wanted to return to Earth and fight to regain humanity’s place in control of its own planet. The Runners won the argument but Returner sympathisers seize upon the revelation that Earth survived the war to argue for a renewed attempt to cleanse the remaining posthuman artefacts and restore the uploaded copies of human consciousnesses trapped inside them.

The above plot summary probably makes the book sound more serious than it actually is. While there are a lot of serious ideas in this book regarding the perils of runaway technological progress, this book is also to some extent a comedy, frequently being satirical, particularly once the characters Winter and Calder (two pro-Returner folk musicians) are resurrected from data storage by a playwright on Eurydice who is keen for controversy. This is probably the biggest problem with the book, the light-hearted tone makes it difficult to take the book entirely seriously. Unlike Macleod’s other books the societies in this are never portrayed well enough to be convincing and even some reasonably important plot points are undermined by some cheap puns. Although occasionally amusing, it is never funny enough to work as a comedy so the attempts at humour largely damage the book rather than adding to it. The characters are generally likeable but largely lacking in depth compared to the main characters in some of Macleod’s other novels. Another related problem is that because the plot is never taken entirely seriously it is not particularly compelling. The setting does have some fairly original points, but does also reuse some of Macleod’s favourite references (Scotland, Communism, the Singularity) which are starting to feel a bit over-familiar after they’ve been used and reused in most of his earlier books.

In summary, this is far from being Macleod’s best work. There are some genuinely interesting ideas and the premise has the potential to make a good novel, but ill-advised and not entirely successful attempts at comedy and satire detract from the book.

Rating : 6/10


“The Human Front” by Ken Macleod


As well as his many novels MacLeod has also written a novella - “The Human Front”, available in the “Infinities” anthology. It takes place in Scotland (unsurprisingly) in an alternate universe, where the Americans and British started World War 3 against the Soviets shortly after the end of World War 2. The main character is John Matheson, who as a young boy witnessed some strange events when one of the American's secret anti-gravity flying saucer-shaped bombers calls in for medical assistance at a remote air base. John's father is called upon to treat the pilot – who seems to John to be merely child-sized, although he doesn't get a close look. Years later, John and his family have moved to Glasgow, where John, now a naive, idealistic teenager, becomes increasingly involved in a pro-Soviet militia, despite his father's despair at John's gullibility where the Soviet propaganda is concerned. As events progress John eventually gets a second opportunity to get a look at one of the flying saucers – this time in rather different circumstances.

The background is typical MacLeod, with the result that the early stages might now feels a bit over-familiar to anyone who has read his novels already. Also, this doesn't really have the depth of his novels, and although there are some interesting ideas, they aren't really developed very much – in particular, the climatic revelation is merely given a handful of pages of hurried exposition, whereas it had the potential to be the premise for a decent-sized novel. It is well-written, the characterisation is good and is quite entertaining, but the ending feels far too rushed and it might have worked better as a novel rather than a short story.

In summary, a reasonable short story that doesn't really live up to the potential of its premise.

Rating : 7 / 10


“Engine City” by Ken Macleod


The third – and final – book in the “Engines of Light” series is “Engine City”. While on a routine survey mission of a nearby star system, Gregor Cairns' wife Elisabeth discovers the corpse of a large spider-like alien being. Matt Cairns and his associates realise that an interstellar war may soon be on the horizon. Earlier on, Matt's rival Volkov had flown off to the ancient trading Nexus of Nova Babylonia. His aim is to overthrow the millennia-old traditional government and replace it with a new, more progressive government that is capable of organising the technological force to fight off the threat of the 'Multipliers', as the Spider-aliens are named. However, Matt begins to doubt that the Multipliers are really the threat that Volkov thinks they are, despite the asteroid-Gods' millennia-old antipathy to the Multiplier race. It all ends up with a military confrontation on Nova Babylonia, as Matt and his multiplier allies must somehow deal with the remnants of Volkov's military regime (now leaderless after their leader's assassination). However, is Matt doing the right thing?

Whereas “Dark Light” could be criticised for a comparative lack of ambition, this novel has plenty of fascinating ideas. Rather than the traditional political and technological concepts that usually take precedence in MacLeod's novels, he decides here to focus on the potential of an utterly alien race. The Multipliers are fascinating, if outlandish, creatures, ranging in scale from human-sized creatures down to tiny clones of the larger Multipliers that effectively function as biological nanobots. These tiny creatures allow the Multipliers to offer the humans a seductive choice – if they allow the nanobots into their bloodstream they will gain immortality – as well as increased cognitive abilities and a greater sense of togetherness. The benefits are obvious – but they lead to the dilemma of whether the Multipliers can be trusted, and are the humans that accept the treatment still fully human? It's an intriguing question, especially given the lack of a definitive answer.

There are also plenty of other interesting ideas, as well as an entertaining plot, some good characters and quite a bit of humour. The writing is among MacLeod's best, and the only real criticism might be that the plot does bounce around a lot from place to place, making a bit challenging to follow at times and it does occasionally feel slightly rushed trying to cram so much plot into a relatively short book.

In summary, “Engine City” is a superb work of science fiction, packed with intriguing ideas and with a highly entertaining plot. The previous two books in the trilogy may not have been MacLeod's best, but this surpasses them and ends up as a potential future classic of the genre.

Rating : 9 / 10


“Dark Light” by Ken Macleod


The sequel to “Cosmonaut Keep” is 2001's “Dark Light”. The plot is simpler this time, there is only one plot thread with little mention of Earth and all the action takes place on the planet of Croatan, the nearest planet to Mingulay. Matt and Gregor Cairns, along with their other companions, arrive in orbit around the (mostly) human-populated planet. They find a planet in the middle of a transition from a feudal society to a 20th Century-era industrial economy, complicated by the presence of a large population of primitive tribes in the hinterlands, and the frequent visits of the comparatively cosmopolitan interstellar traders, who have travelled from the relatively advanced planet of Nova Babylonia on alien starships.

The new arrivals make contact with the asteroid-inhabiting Gods in the Croatan system, some of whom warn that their fellow Gods' intentions may not be entirely benign, and may be part of a millennia-old war with another alien species. After the local authorities prove obstructive, Matt and his companions are faced with the question of whether to use their superior knowledge and superior technology to meddle with the political situation on Croatan. Eventually, they come to believe that the only possible solution is to join with the working-class rebel movements on the planet to challenge the bureaucratic Port Authority that runs the planet's main city. However, not all of Matt's companions – principally the former cosmonaut Volkov - agree that he is trying to bring about the right changes.

This book is simpler than any of MacLeod's other books, although it still packs in quite a lot of politically-centred discussion the plot is very straightforward and it doesn't have the surfeit of ideas that can make some of his other books slightly daunting – if satisfying – to read. The plot works quite well, but it isn't terribly memorable - although it is entertaining. One small irritation is the use of a present tense for Matt's viewpoints, which is a bit disconcerting and seems a pointless difference from the style of the rest of the novel.

In summary, an entertaining fast-moving book that doesn't have the ambition of MacLeod's other novels.

Rating : 7½ / 10


“Cosmonaut Keep” by Ken Macleod


After “The Sky Road” finished off the “Fall Revolution” series MacLeod decided to switch universes, starting afresh with his “Engines of Light” trilogy. It kept many of the characteristics of his earlier books – political content, sophisticated computer technology, Scottish settings – but added on new elements, many taken from the “space opera” genre. Unlike the largely stand-alone “Fall Revolution” books, the “Engines of Light” series was a genuine trilogy, with all three books having to be read before a conclusion was reached.

The first book is, like “The Stone Canal” and “The Sky Road”, split into two separate plot threads. The first follows computer programmer (a common occupation in MacLeod's books) Matt Cairns who lives in a near-future Edinburgh (living in a near-future Edinburgh is also common in Macleod’s books). In this timeline Europe has been conquered by a resurgent Soviet Union, with the US looking on uneasily from across the Atlantic. As news breaks that a Russian space station may have made contact with an alien entity, Matt comes into possession of a datadisk of unknown origin, which may somehow be connected to the alien contact. Matt flees from the authorities, travels to America and eventually ends up on the Russian space station as the cosmonauts there are faced with a couple of dilemmas – should they bow down to pressure from their Earth-bound political masters and should they build the interstellar drive that the aliens have seemingly given them the blueprints for.

The second plot thread takes place on the far-off planet of Mingulay. It turns out that many star systems have populations of alien organisms that inhabit asteroids. These organisms are tiny, but exist in vast numbers, with the effect that each asteroid has a superhumanly intelligent group mind. These group minds are superstitiously referred to as “Gods” by lesser races, quite appropriately since the Gods frequently interfere in the affairs of the underlings, for their own inscrutable purposes. One of these purposes involved kidnapping groups of humans throughout history and relocating them on far-off planets, such as Mingulay. This kidnapping is performed by the Saurs, an alien race physically similar to the 'Greys' of popular flying saucer myths, although the Saurs are more peaceful and benevolent than Hollywood would usually portray the Greys as being. The main character in this plot thread is Gregor Cairns who is – as his surname might suggest - a distant descendent of Matt Cairns from the other plot thread. He is heir to a project that has operated in his family for generations – to try and master the secrets of interstellar navigation and be the first human-built vessel to travel to another planet in centuries. However, this will not be easy, and requires persuading the Saurs to release some of their technology – something they are very reluctant to do. There is also a surprising discovery when he realises that his ancestor Matt is still alive – despite the passage of centuries.

As always, the quality of the writing is good, however the plot itself doesn't work quite as well as some of the MacLeod's other novels. The book suffers from being the first book in the series and it's difficult to really understand the full meaning of some of the events in the book without having read the rest of the series. The background of Mingulay, and the several alien races featured in the book, is also not described in enough detail here to really appreciate fully at first what is occurring. These problems are largely nullified by reading the next two books in the series, but the premise could still have been introduced better. While Mingulay may be occasionally difficult to understand, the near-future Europe setting seems a bit over-familiar from MacLeod's “Fall Revolution” series. Although the events are different in this book, there is a certain feeling of “seen-it-all-before” about the earlier parts of that plot thread. Throw in some fairly bland characters, and the end result is one of MacLeod's weaker novels.

In summary, it may not be the best of MacLeod's work, and it may feel incomplete on its own, but MacLeod on an off day is still better than many other science fiction authors at their best.

Rating : 7 / 10


“The Sky Road” by Ken Macleod


The final Fall Revolution book is “The Sky Road”, another sequel to “The Stone Canal”. Confusingly, it takes place in an alternate universe to “The Cassini Division”. Despite being set in the same time frame, Earth is radically different and the events in “The Cassini Division” haven't happened. Having focused on libertarians, capitalists and communists in previous books, “The Sky Road”'s dominant political ideology is that of extremist environmentalists. They believe that reliance on technology led to the disasters of the 21st Century, and have established a more peaceful, parochial world in which most technology has been banned.

There are again two plot threads, one focuses on Myra, an associate of Jonathon Wilde and David Reid who came to control a small state with a large nuclear capacity in the mid-21st Century in a plotline connected to the 21st Century portion of “The Stone Canal”. The other focuses on a naive young man named Clovis, who resolves to investigate the life of Myra the Deliverer, by his time a major historical figure. Clovis works on a large project to build the first space ship in centuries, an endeavour that may require use of previously banned technology to pull off successfully. This spaceship is being constructed in Scotland (near where the Skye Bridge now is, hence on the Skye road), conveniently close to Myra's old haunts in Glasgow. Clovis takes a trip to investigate any traces of her life, despite the occasional disapproval of the authorities.

Again this is a well-written novel, with some beautiful pieces of prose and plenty of clearly explained ideas. The characters are perhaps more likeable than in previous books, particularly in the far future section. The more distant of the two future eras is the more interesting of the plot threads, with the other plot being very reminiscent of the corresponding section in “The Stone Canal”. If there is one thing to criticise, it is that the plot lacks impetus, there isn't such a sense of tension as in previous books and occasionally the plot seems relatively prosaic.

In summary, a well written book (again), that is entertaining but not quite as ambitious as the previous books.

Rating : 7½ / 10


“The Cassini Division” by Ken Macleod


The third book in the “Fall Revolution” series is a sequel to “The Stone Canal”. It is set several centuries after the end of the Earth-based plot thread in “The Stone Canal”, the super-intelligent Fast Folk have gone but the remnants they left behind have bombarded the Earth with computer viruses, leading to a collapse in the Internet and computer technology. The future society has changed drastically, into an extreme form of anarchist socialism where every major resource is free and there is no governmental control (somewhat reminiscent of The Culture in Iain M. Banks’ Science Fiction series).

The main character is Ellen May Ngwethu, a member of the titular Cassini Division, a military organisation that guards the New Mars wormhole and protects humanity from any resurgence of the Fast Folk, believing that a re-emergence of the AIs could lead to a disaster for humanity. After the first visitor from New Mars in centuries comes through the wormhole, Ellen must go on a journey to one of the Solar System's few remaining capitalist enclaves to consult Professor Malley, the man who invented the mathematics behind the wormhole's operation.

This book is simpler than any of the other Fall Revolution books, with a linear (apart from some flashbacks) narrative all told from the viewpoint of Ellen. She is an interesting character, with a philosophy that seems quite alien but is also quite believable. She is also extremely ruthless in pursuit of her goals and one of the more interesting points of the book is whether her mission is morally right or not. As usual, Macleod refuses to explicitly pass judgement on her actions either way.

Again, there are plenty of ideas – particularly on the potential benefits and dangers of artificial intelligence and on the question of how much is justified in the name of self-defence. There is also some complicated physics which manages to sound reasonably plausible (even though I suspect it isn't). The future society also seems reasonably plausible at first glance, despite being drastically different to any contemporary society, although again I suspect it wouldn't work in practise nearly as well as in the book, with the author choosing to make the future world a virtual utopia which seems slightly simplistic.

In summary, this is an entertaining book that is an easier read than some of MacLeod's other work. Despite the simpler prose, it still has plenty of depth and ideas.

Rating : 8½ / 10


“The Stone Canal” by Ken Macleod


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