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“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

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