Short works

Books : reviews

Ken MacLeod.
Newton's Wake.
Orbit. 2004

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 16 May 2009

Lucinda Carlyle and her team go through the skein gate to an uncharted world for another day's combat archaeology, and find more than they expected. The world has already been colonised, by a group who fled the Hard Rapture on Earth. And Lucinda accidentally fires up what might be an ancient War Machine. But it's not until several other competing factions fittle into the system that mayhem really ensues, during Ben-Ami's performance art opera.

Just another day in MacLeod's fertile brain, then. We get different views on the backup-and-download form of immortality, a star-spanning transportation system run by Glasgow gangsters, a great explanation of why FTL travel is possible without violating causality, snorting-tea-down-through-the-nose lines like "an entire virtual planet of four billion people devoted to building prayer wheels in an attempt at a denial of service attack on God", weird ideologies, resurrected folk singers, 11D VR, great historical vignettes as distorted through opera, a load of delicious puns (I like the search engines), and an exponentially-building plot that starts off reasonably slowly, gets more and more convoluted, and builds up until it screeches off to infinity.

There's a place where I think one of the restored-from-backup characters remembers something that happened to the original after the backup point. But I'm sufficiently confused by parts of the twisty plot that I can't tell whether MacLeod has made a mistake, I have made a mistake, or it's a deliberate clue to something even weirder going on. But it's a good sort of confusion, the kind of WTF-sensawunda that this sort of SF does so well.

Ken MacLeod.
Learning the World: a novel of first contact.
Orbit. 2005

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 18 February 2010

A future augmented humanity is progressing its Slower-than-Light Generation Ship exploration and colonisation of the Galaxy, so far not inhabited by anything else more advanced than pond slime, when it makes First Contact with an early-20th Centrury level technology of intelligent flying mammals ("alien space bats", natch). This causes consternation and upheaval on both sides, as the advanced humans come to terms with the fact that they are not alone, and worry over First Contact protocols, and the bats learn advanced tech.

This is told in alternating chapters, from the human and bat PoV, so we get to see each side both from within, and from the perspective of the other. And, of course, each side sees itself as Human, and the other as Other, which leads to some interesting consequences. And there is the third, reader's, perspective, since neither side is (current) human at all.

This is all done very well, and the conclusion is nicely ironic, but it doesn't have quite as much sheer chutzpah, zaniness, and alienness of MacLeod's earlier works.

Ken MacLeod.
The Highway Men.
Sandstone Press. 2006

Ken MacLeod.
The Execution Channel.
Orbit. 2007

Ken MacLeod.
The Night Sessions.
Orbit. 2008

Ken MacLeod.
The Restoration Game.
Orbit. 2010

Ken MacLeod.
Orbit. 2012

Ken MacLeod.
Orbit. 2014

Ball lightning. Weather balloons. Secret military aircraft. Ryan knows all the justifications for UFO sightings. But when something falls out of the sky on the hills near his small Scottish town, he finds his cynicism can’t identify or explain the phenomenon.

And in a future where nothing is a secret, where everything is recorded on CCTV or reported online, why can he find no evidence of the UFO, nor anything to shed light on what occurred? Is it the political revolutionaries, is it the government or is it aliens themselves who are creating the cover-up? Or does the very idea of a cover-up hide the biggest secret of all?

Ken MacLeod.
Selkie Summer.
NewCon Press. 2020

Siobhan Ross has several reasons for taking a holiday job on the Isle of Skye – her keen interest in marine biology for one thing – but she’s also determined to escape Glasgow and put some distance between herself and a failed relationship with fellow student Kieran.

The last thing Siobhan’s looking for is romance, let alone with a Selkie, but…

In Selkie Summer, Ken MacLeod delivers a rich contemporary fantasy that is steeped in Celtic lore, nuclear submarines and secrets, as Siobhan finds herself the focus of attention she never sought, unwittingly embroiled in political intrigue and the shifting landscape of international alliances. At its heart, Selkie Summer is a love story: as passionate and unconventional as you could wish for.

Ken MacLeod.
Orbit. 2016

An epic vision of man and machine in the far reaches of space.

Carlos is dead. A soldier who died for his ideals a thousand years ago, he’s been reincarnated and conscripted to fight an A.I. revolution in deep space. And he’s not sure he’s fighting for the right side.

Seba is alive. By a fluke of nature, a contractual overlap, and a loop in its subroutines, this lunar mining robot has gained sentience. Gathering with other “freeboots,” Seba is taking a stand against the corporations that want it and its kind gone.

Against a backdrop of warring companies and interstellar drone combat, Carlos and Seba must either find a way to rise above the games their masters are playing, or die. And even dying will not be the end of it.

Ken MacLeod.
Orbit. 2016

Die for the company, live for the pay…

And the ultimate payoff is DH-17, an Earth-like planet hundreds of light years from human habitation. Ruthless corporations vie over the prize remotely, and war is in full swing

But soldiers recruited to fight in the extremities of deep space come with their own problems, from AI minds in full rebellion to Carlos “the Terrorist” and his team of dead mercenaries who have been reincarnated from a bloodier period in Earth's history for one purpose only—to kill.

Ken MacLeod.
Orbit. 2017

As battle looms, the robots must become their own last hope.

Carlos is out of patience. Humanity hos been lured into a war against itself, and only the robots can see reason, In order to stop humanity's leaders from stamping out the rebel robots and their allies for good, Carlos will have to fight fire with fire.

Seba is out of time. Deep inside the enemy stronghold, she and the free robots have to spark a new revolt before the whole world falls in on them.

Ken MacLeod.
Cosmonaut Keep.
Orbit. 2000

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 10 September 2006

It's about 40 years in the future. The Russians have taken over Europe, and Matt Cairns is a project manager and sometime shady dealer living in Edinburgh, when ESA announces news of alien contact. Plot threads ramify in all directions as Matt finds himself with stolen plans for an alien space drive. Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, we see life on the colony planet Mingulay, where two sets of earth humans, intelligent saurs, and krakens live together in a loose interstellar civilisation, bound together by speed-of-light drives. Most of the humans are ancient settlers, but a few are descendants of the Cosmonauts, who may hold the key to interstellar navigation, until now the sole province of the krakens. But will the millions of gods allow the humans to discover the secret?

This is wonderful stuff, as the reader struggles to figure out what is going on, what the links are between the two threads, and where that ancient interstellar civilisation came from. It's all told in MacLeod's exuberant, tongue-in-cheek but with a hint-of-anger, style. We get a few answers towards the end, as the two plot threads converge in MacLeod's standard manner, but there is still plenty to discover in this fascinating new universe.

Ken MacLeod.
Dark Light.
Orbit. 2001

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 1 October 2006

Current Earth is left behind, and the action now moves entirely to the Second Sphere, and the far future. The Mingulayan humans have rediscovered how to navigate the human starship Bright Star, and set off at lightspeed for the nearby system of Croatan. Its mere arrival causes great upheavals to the various sets of locals, for various reasons, and when the cosmonauts start interfering in local politics, things get ever more fraught. But the greatest revelations come after a quick trip out to the asteroids for a chat with the local gods.

This continues to be great, as ever more understanding of the peoples of the Second Sphere unfold, in new, detailed, and terrifying directions. The society, with the various groups of transplanted peoples interacting, and the effect of the Bright Star's original arrival centuries ago on everyone, is complex and believable, as are the interplay of different political agendas.

MacLeod handles those deep political and moral issues with such a light touch. There are sneaky little in-jokes, at many levels. The saurs are Greys; the krakens are "talking squids in outer space"; all brilliantly playing with SFnal ideas, and poking fun at people poking fun at SF (And it might have seemed even more so, were this not published before Atwood's 2003 comments! However, given the amount of SF featuring such squids, clearly Atwood is a devotee of the genre to have so insightfully picked up on this meme.) The navigator's answer to "what was your key insight?" had me nearly falling out my chair -- but it's the best kind of in-joke: if you don't get it, you don't even realise it's a joke, so it doesn't spoil the story. (If you do get it, willing disbelief does unsuspend for a moment -- but the joke is so funny, I don't mind that here.) And even the chapter titles are wonderful -- take "Vaster than Intellects and More Cool" -- now, how marvellously cool is that?

Ken MacLeod.
Engine City.
Orbit. 2002

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 4 November 2006

The final instalment in the Engines of Light trilogy keeps the action in the Second Sphere, partly on Nova Babylonia, where Cosmonaut Volkov attempts to prepare them for war with the Spider aliens, and partly back with Matt Cairns and his descendents, who discover a completely different side to the alien threat. Cultures clash, and mayhem ensues.

MacLeod easily manages to keep up the momentum of the earlier volumes, with new twists, new politics, new science, and occasionally very old science (how many hard SF books have mutterings about epicycles?), all being thrown about in his habitual style. Great closure to the main story, with just that final touch to let you know this is a story in a wider universe, not a little closed world tale on its own.

Ken MacLeod.
The Star Fraction.
Legend. 1995

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 8 February 1997

The time: post sub-apocalypse. The world is divided into warring factions; Britain is Balkanised -- each political faction has their own enclave. Moh Kohn is a libertarian communist mercenary with a very intelligent, and possibly pacifist, gun. Janis Taine is a biologist researching memory drugs, dodging the Stasis police who want to ensure certain technologies don't advance too much. She hires Moh to protect her; he gets an accidental dose of her drugs, releasing frightening memories of his father, Josh. Jordan Brown is a hacker and financial whiz, refugee from a religious enclave, mixing with Donovan, a crackpot green loosing computer viruses to kill the mythical Watchmaker AIs.

They all need to find out what Josh Kohn's Black Plan -- set in motion 20 years earlier -- has in store for the world, before Space Defense vaporizes them all.

Described in the blurb as "grainy", from the outside The Star Fraction has all the hallmarks of one of those dark, depressing, 'British-style' urban-decay novels. But it isn't. Although there is a lot of decay, the characters are likeable and competent, the tone is sufficiently optimistic, and the 'message' is fairly upbeat. And it is very funny, witty, in places. The text is very dense; my preferred way to read a book is to inhale it in a single sitting, but I had to take this one slowly (rather like eating a rich chocolate mousse) over a week. The ending can't quite manage the promise of the build-up, but this is a book to read for its texture and background, not just for its plot. A stunning first novel.

Ken MacLeod.
The Stone Canal.
Legend. 1996

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 22 November 1998

Ken MacLeod has beautifully followed up his debut novel The Star Fraction with another set in the same universe, this with a much wider time frame and setting than the first novel. (It isn't necessary to read The Star Fraction first, but you will miss one nice little joke if you don't.)

This story is written as two parallel strands. The first follows the life of Jonathan Wilde from the recent past to the recent future, as he helps brings about a libertarian Britain, debunks conspiracy theories, founds Norlonto and watches it fall (the subject of The Star Fraction), possibly causes World War Three, and gets killed in a Kasakhstan border skirmish. The second strand describes what happens to him after he dies, as he struggles to understand the colony of New Mars full of anarchists and oppressed machine intelligences, run by his old colleague, friend and arch-enemy David Reid.

Here we get to see in the large the genesis and result of all the Marxist Libertarian politics that made The Star Fraction such fun, and so thought-provoking. And there's lots of good stuff about machine intelligence rights, virtual reality, embodied AIs, and uploaded minds, too. I found the ending a trifle anti-climactic, but it's great fun getting there, and it leads in well to the next tale, of The Cassini Division.

Ken MacLeod.
The Cassini Division.
Orbit. 1998

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 22 May 2004

We're following on from The Stone Canal. The Cassini Division are engaged in protecting the socialist Union of the Solar System from the fast folk on Jupiter, and also from anything coming through the wormhole to New Mars based on what Jonathan Wilde has told them about it. Ellen May Ngwethu has a complicated mission to this end, which involves collecting the non-cooperator Malley from the wilds of London, and getting him to reopen the wormhole. But he will cooperate only if the Division opens negotiations with the Jovian fast folk. Then things start to get complicated.

This is a wonderful follow-up. It maybe doesn't have quite the same density as the two preceding books, but it shows another side to the richly complex culture that MacLeod is building up. It's interesting to have a (relatively) sympathetic protagonist who is monomaniacal, and amazingly bigoted. It's interesting to see the description of the True Knowledge sound truly appalling, yet be having civilised consequences. It's great to see how two sides can have such different interpretations of the True Knowledge based on the different interpretation of a single word. And there are some lovely little jokes scattered throughout (I particularly liked the scene where Suze asks for anti-space sickness medicine).

Ken MacLeod.
The Sky Road.
Orbit. 1999

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 2 July 2005

In the final book of the Fall Revolution, we have the near future tale of Myra Godwin-Davidova, President of the minuscule International Scientific and Technical Workers' Republic on the border of Kasakhstan, and the few hundred years after tale of Clovis colha Gree, historian and space-shipyard worker. Their stories run in close parallel as we, and Clovis, gradually discover what Myra did to become The Deliverer.

This is a fascinating tale of rogue AIs, fragmented politics, nanotech, nuclear weapons, lost history, and people attempting to do the right thing in a much too complicated world. Not such a roller-coaster ride as the earlier books, but a fitting conclusion to the series nevertheless.

Ken MacLeod.
Beyond the Hallowed Sky.
Orbit. 2021

When a brilliant scientist gets a letter from herself about faster-than-light travel, she doesn’t know what to believe. The equations work, but her paper is discredited – and soon the criticism is more than scientific. Exiled by the establishment, she gets an offer to build her starship from an unlikely source.

But in the heights of Venus and on a planet of another star, a secret is already being uncovered that will shake humanity to its foundations.

Ken MacLeod.
Beyond the Reach of Earth.
Orbit. 2023

The Fermi are awake

With the invention of faster-than-light travel, there is nowhere that humanity cannot go. New worlds are discovered, but with them come new dangers.

At the heart of the discovery are the Fermi, mysterious beings that have survived on alien worlds for longer than humanity has existed. Now the Fermi are awakening, and they do not seem pleased to find humans in their midst.

But for Lakshmi Nayak and the crew of the Fighting Chance, danger is a lot closer to home. Their search for answers will take them to places, and worlds, they never expected.

Ken MacLeod.
Dolphin. 1998