Ken MacLeod Book Reviews

by Mac Tonnies

Ken MacLeod is one of science fiction's most intriguing voices. His novels (the politically charged "Fall Revolution" sequence and the subsequent "Engines of Light" trilogy) are full of ideas and wit; MacLeod's take on the future is uproarious and heady, full of Kafkaesque intrigue, sly cultural commentary and head-spinning technology. MacLeod's tales achieve results beyond the wildest dreams of most contemporary SF. In a field largely governed by conformity, MacLeod has distinguished himself as an original, provocative voice in the space of only a few novels; "Asimov's" has called him a "one-man revolution" and Kim Stanley Robinson has likened him to a nova appearing in our sky. Subversive, observant and informed, MacLeod's fiction redefines the parameters of the genre.

Related links:

The Early Days of a Better Nation interview with Ken MacLeod


THE STONE CANAL (Second in "Star Fraction" sequence)

"The Stone Canal" is a turbulent novel that jumps backward and forward through history to chart humanity's move off-planet. MacLeod's often dense and obtuse near-future political wrangling is intriguingly juxtaposed with some of the best technological extrapolation in the genre; MacLeod uses science fiction conventions (i.e., robots, androids and extraplanetary colonies) to deconstruct the machinations of allegiance and the role of personal volition in society. "The Stone Canal" is arguably a better novel than "The Cassini Division" (see below), if a bit more difficult. Cerebral and gutsy, "The Stone Canal" epitomizes its author's uniquely partisan perspective.


THE CASSINI DIVISION (Third in "Star Fraction" sequence)

"The Cassini Division" is an engaging and stylish postmodern space opera that finds a pastoral Earth recovering from political and military revolution. Jupiter has been colonized by an enigmatic race of sentient machines, and a wormwhole has opened interstellar space for colonists both human and mechanical. MacLeod uses his colorful backdrop as the setting for a thought-provoking conflict that's rife with moral dilemma and existential speculation. Like Bruce Sterling's "Schismatrix," MacLeod's future is deeply intelligent and developed in its philosophical and political dimensions. While "The Cassini Division" fumbles a bit in the first hundred pages, I came away from MacLeod's adventure pleasantly addled and ready for more.


COSMONAUT KEEP (First in "Engines of Light" trilogy)

In "Cosmonaut Keep," MacLeod develops a complex future history every bit as imaginative as that of "The Cassini Division" and "The Stone Canal." Barbed, thoughtful and cryptically beautiful, "Cosmonaut Keep" is a refreshingly brainy novel that does for alien contact what William Gibson's "Neuromancer" did for computers. MacLeod's novel is consistently bold, laced with eye-popping scenery, moments of utter alien spookiness, and a delicious sense of humor. MacLeod is as good as they come: a techno-mongering satirist with an imagination as vast as the universe he depicts. "Cosmonaut Keep" is an invigorating experience by one of the genre's very best stylists.


DARK LIGHT (Second in "Engines of Light" trilogy)

If there is anything that readers of Ken MacLeod's intricate future histories welcome, it's his unique fusion of cosmic intrigue and edgy politics. "Dark Light" is a sequel that delivers. While "Cosmonaut Keep" is frequently puzzling and enigmatic (despite flashes of lyrical beauty), "Dark Light" boasts a more explicit "sense of wonder" that recalls Arthur C. Clarke's pivotal "first contact" novels. That's not to say MacLeod has scrapped his radical politics; in "Dark Light," socialist rebellion and interstellar economics are alive and well. But some of the sheer mystery of MacLeod's future history has been artfully peeled away, allowing a sense of context that is at once vertiginous and shocking.

The universe of "Dark Light" is quite possibly stranger than the one we glimpsed in "Cosmonaut Keep" -- and decidedly more chilling. The highlight of this novel is the space mission to interrogate the "Powers Above" -- microcosmic entities of godlike intelligence whose patient machinations have altered the role of life in the cosmos. For example, we learn that the big-eyed "saurs" (eerie stand-ins for the "Grays" of close-encounter lore) are genetically modified descendants of Earth's own dinosaurs. And, horrifyingly, the Powers Above have conflicting agendas that have little or nothing to do with humanity's best interests.

MacLeod's fascination with revolutionary politics ultimately hinders "Dark Light." The climax -- a bloody civil insurrection on the hauntingly rendered planet Croatan -- comes as rather tame, predictable stuff after the protagonists' discoveries in deep space. Nevertheless, MacLeod achieves a strange sense of balance that manages to reconcile the politics of both gods and men. If science fiction's goal is to revel in heretical ideas and challenge the status quo, MacLeod has once again proven himself one of the genre's most erudite satirist-philosophers.

ENGINE CITY (Third in "Engines of Light" trilogy)

MacLeod concludes "The Engines of Light" with more of the surpassingly cerebral, politically edgy meta-adventure that characterizes "Cosmonaut Keep" and "Dark Light." "Engine City" functions on multiple levels, rounding out one of the best science fiction epics in recent history. MacLeod respects his readers' intelligence and treats us to a carnivalesque romp through a galaxy populated by sentient bipedal dinosaurs, super-intelligent giant squid and god-like asteroidal composite minds. His humans are convincing and sympathetic; his aliens are appropriately and tantalizingly weird. If you like your speculative fiction subtle and mutilayered, MacLeod's work promises to engross.

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