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6Feb/110

“Newton’s Wake” by Ken Macleod

newtonswake

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

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