The Star FractionRandom House/Legend (U.K.), HC, © 1995, 341 pp, ISBN #0-09-955871-8
Reviewed November 2000
This is the first of MacLeod's four novels in his future history of anarchic states; it's followed by The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division, and The Sky Road. As I write this, The Star Fraction has not yet been printed domestically, so it's the last of those four novels that I've read.
In the near future - perhaps around 2040 or so - the world is reeling from a series of wars and skirmishes. Britain, in particular, has been partitioned into a number of city-states governed by various factions. Mercenary groups augment private institutions for security purposes, and revolutionary groups' private armies. Moh Kohn is just such a mercenary, toting a near-intelligent gun in his work. One night he gets involved in a raid on a university where he stops and captures Cat, an old girlfriend. They bear grudges against one another, and Moh refuses to ransom her, marking her as persona non grata among the mercenaries. He then meets Janis Taine, a biological researcher at the university investigating memory drugs. A US/UN group called Stasis send "men in black" to order her to stop her research, and she contracts Moh to guard her as they leave the area for Norlonto.
Norlonto is a region north of London which is governed anarchically, where Moh's group is based. There they run into Jordan Brown, who has escaped from an arch-Christian city-state to Norlonto and has had an encounter with a Black Planner, which together with an experience Moh had at the university suggests that there's an artificial intelligence loose in the global network. Stasis believes Moh and Janis are connected to it, and it turns out that it might have a connection to Moh's father, and to the global revolution which is preparing to launch its final assault.
The Star Fraction never came together for me, although perhaps I was expecting too much based on the later books. Momentous events described in those books don't occur here, and the "sense of wonder" in this novel is considerably lower than in, say The Stone Canal.
The plot felt disappointing, as the threats posed by Stasis, the US/UN, and/or the artificial intelligence are all somewhat vague. Stasis certainly seems threatening and dangerous, but they're fairly stock villains: Menacing, tough, but not real people. Moreover, it's not clear whether what they're fighting for (to stop the AI, often called the "Watchmaker" or the "Black Plan") isn't such a bad thing. While the Black Plan is connected to the revolution, the ultimate goal of the revolution also seems rather shrouded, at most rather mundane by science fictional standards: Bringing a new social order to Britain.
The characters are reasonably engaging, although only Jordan's philosophical radical is really thought-provoking; Moh is an idealist, and Janis is not a lot more than his foil. But overall the characters and the settings don't seem like they do much more than present certain kinds of governments in the various city-states and how people might live in them, given the circumstances in the novel.
The book's title derives from a secret agenda in the Black Plan, apparently to get people away from Earth and into space, colonizing other worlds, but this agenda is kept very much in the background and though it sees fruition, it doesn't feel at all satisfying; it seems a passe climax.
Although the writing is sharp and clever, in retrospect it's clear that this is a first novel and there's much better stuff to come. The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division are much better books.
The Stone CanalTor, HC, © 1996, 304 pp, ISBN #0-312-87053-1
Reviewed July 2000
I read this book after I read The Cassini Division, but it actually should be read earlier. It is, however, just as good as its successor, and much more rewarding than the first book in the series, The Star Fraction.
The Stone Canal is told in alternating chapters: The first chapter occurs in an alien world which has been colonized by humans and named "New Mars". A man named Jonathan Wilde (a minor supporting character in The Star Fraction) has been cloned, and his memories up until the moment of his death restored to his body. An enigmatic robot named Jay-Dub is responsible for reviving him, decades after his death, which occurred back on Earth. Meanwhile, an artificial intelligence named Dee Model, in a human body cloned from Wilde's late wife, has escaped her master (who basically used her as a sex toy) and seeks to be free. In alternating chapters, we learn that New Mars is an anarcho-capitalist society which mistrusts artificial intelligences.
The second chapter takes us to Glasgow in 1975, where Jon Wilde is a graduate student. A libertarian capitalist, his best friend is socialist David Reid. Reid meets and dates a woman named Annette, but after they break up, she dates and eventually marries Wilde.
The future material grabs our interest immediately, as it presents us with a strange world to explore, but it's the backstory which is ultimately more interesting: We follow Wilde, Reid, and Annette (mainly Wilde; he's the protagonist) through 80 years of history, as the world governments collapse and anarchy reigns. The backstory of Cassini is a key part of the story here, as one group of humans goes through the conceptual singularity of evolution and becomes post-human, and another group of humans uses them to travel through a wormhole to a distant star, where they found New Mars.
But while The Stone Canal features an impressive array of science fictional and political ideas - longevity and rejuvenation technology, cloning, mind storage, robotic intelligence, the nuts and bolts of anarcho-capitalism, and nanotechnology - it's the characters of Reid and Wilde which are the focus of the story. Wilde is a true believer in capitalism, but he never has the fervent, near-religious belief in it that many around him have in their beliefs, especially Reid who is largely defined by his.
The ethical implications of much of what's occurring are presented, most tantalizingly the notion of one man cloning another (dead) man's (dead) wife for his own purely selfish purposes, but as in Cassini, the conclusions are left up to the reader, and the examples provided by the story are examples tied to the specific scenarios which occur in the story. They're not all-encompassing, but they're thought-provoking. You're left wondering what - if any - of these schools of thought MacLeod personally believes in (my guess is that he's an anarchist who doesn't feel a strong tie to either socialism or capitalism, and finds it slightly easier to poke fun at capitalism).
While the ending of the story leaves a bit to be desired, the ride is first-rate, and once you've read three or four chapters, I can practically guarantee you'll not want to stop until you've finished the book. Really excellent stuff.
The Cassini DivisionTor, HC, © 1998, 240 pp, ISBN #0-312-87044-2
Reviewed June 2000
You want high-tech science fiction in the tradition of Vernor Vinge? Well here you go.
Actually, MacLeod seems to owe a lot to Vinge in this book: He even uses the term "singularity" to describe the event of humanity transcending out current ability to understand and becoming something we can't even imagine. Unlike Vinge, who only alludes to the results of this event in Marooned in Realtime, these "post-humans" appear and play a key role in The Cassini Division. (Although this is the third book in MacLeod's future history series, it's the first one I read.)
Two centuries earlier, two groups of humans left Earth: One, the Outwarders, ended up inside Jupiter's atmosphere, where they became machines with human minds, able to think and act amazingly fast. These post-humans entered a sort of dream state where they remained for centuries, but before doing so they both disintegrated the moon Ganymede, and opened up a wormhole to another world in another era. The other group went through the wormhole to found New Mars, and have not been heard from. Both groups' existences trouble the humans living on Earth.
Further, the post-humans began emitting radio signals which permeated the solar system and acted as both electronic and memetic viruses, rendering electronic equipment and radios useless and also damaging human minds which received them via radio receivers. This resulted in a worldwide economic collapse, of course, on top of which was built the Solar Union, an anarcho-socialist organization. The Cassini Division is the Union's elite strike force, ready (they hope) to deal with the post-humans or New Martians if either emerge from the vicinity of Jupiter. They possess tremendous power based on mechanical, chemical and biological technologies, which often mirror current or imagined electronic technologies - an interesting twist.
Ellen May Ngewthu was born in the 2000s and lived through the chaos of that century. Thanks to future technology, humans live a very long time, and by 2303 she is one of the leaders of the Cassini Division. She first seeks out two individuals who emerged from the wormhole some years earlier from New Mars to ask how to use the wormhole to get there. When they refuse, she seeks out one Dr. Malley, who helped develop the theory on which the wormhole is based. As he is a "non-cooperator" living in the remnants of London, she meets a young woman named Suze on the way to find him who helps her accomplish her goal, and then joins the Division in its current mission to find some way to deal with the post-humans.
For a 240-page book, The Cassini Division is packed with ideas. The thrust of the novel involves a contrast between anarcho-socialism and anarcho-capitalism, the former being embodied in Ellen, and the latter in some characters who show up later. Ellen holds very strong prejudices against capitalism (which is a system she can barely conceive of), and also rejects the notion that minds can be copied to computers and restored later to restore the human; if a mind has been recorded, then it's not only no longer the same person, but not even human, hence the post-humans are not human, and she's dubious that they're even sentient. They're just simulations.
To his credit, MacLeod presents her view fairly even-handedly. She's the protagonist, so one is forced to see her point of view as having some validity, but it's so rather alien compared to what the 20th century western world is used to, which creates an interesting abstract conflict in the story. The capitalist point of view is also presented fairly straightforwardly, although MacLeod has a little fun with some of the more radical elements of that approach which belittles it slightly.
But at its core the book is about the question of how we can relate to each other: Personally, we all have certain beliefs, and having certain beliefs in common allows us to accomplish certain things we can't otherwise (the socialist structures in the Union work mainly because the vast majority of the population believes that they're beneficial and worthwhile). At a group level, how can socialist and capitalist societies coexist? Can they? How can a low-tech society coexist with a far superior society? Is it even worth trying, when the latter could wipe out the former so easily if they so choose? Difficult questions. MacLeod presents an answer tailored to this particular situation; more general solutions are left to the reader's imagination.
All-in-all, this is a very neat book, well worth reading. I'm going to track down everything else I can find by MacLeod; he looks like a good one.
In early 2002 I re-read this book for a book discussion, and developed some new thoughts about it as a result.
The theme of trust is central to The Cassini Division, particularly the question of whom we can trust - and how - given sufficiently advanced technology. Ellen succinctly evaluates the Jovians repeatedly through the book, and her take on them is that the only way humanity can react to them is either to destroy them outright while we can, or to let them survive, in which case we'll interact with them only in whatever ways they choose to interact with us, since we'll be powerless to do otherwise. They're too powerful. Giving them "the benefit of the doubt" isn't an option, because we have zero experience with creatures such as they, so ascribing benevolent notions to them is a groundless, purely wishful-thinking idea. (An analogy with the European incursion into the Americas in the 16th century and on is useful here.)
The theme of trust is also spun around how Ellen interacts with her comrades - both old and new - and of course how she socialists interact with the capitalists. Neither one really knows which has superior technology, so each acts according to its desires and natures - the true spirit of anarchy, really.
The Cassini Division is tremendously more rewarding having read The Stone Canal, as the former grows naturally out of the latter. On the other hand, it makes The Sky Road all the more frustrating, as a direct sequel to Cassini would have been far more satisfying than the peculiar hodge-podge of Sky. In particular, I still can't reconcile the "future" pieces of Sky with Cassini, as they appear to be mutually contradictory development paths. (I guess Sky takes place several hundred years after Cassini, but it's hard to figure out how they got there from here.)
Ultimately, The Cassini Division is MacLeod's best novel to date, and it's a sharp contrast to Dark Light, which falls flat because its technology isn't evocative enough. Cassini is a wonderful and whimsical mixture of ideas and action, all in a dead-serious cauldron of situations. It's excellent.
The Sky RoadTor, HC, © 1999, 291 pp, ISBN #0-312-87335-2
Reviewed October 2000
The Sky Road is the last of MacLeod's four-novel arc of future history. Unfortunately, it's a low-key, sometimes confusing, and ultimately disappointing contribution to the arc. (I should note that his first novel, The Star Fraction, is not yet available in a US edition, so I have not yet read it.)
As in The Stone Canal, The Sky Road is a story of two people in two different time periods, their stories alternating chapters. One protagonist is Myra Godwin, the revolutionary who plays a supporting role in The Stone Canal. Myra is one of the leaders of the ISTWR, a small republic offshoot of Kazakhstan which by 2058 - when Myra's story occurs - is one of the world's few remaining nuclear powers. David Reid and the space movement are on the cusp of breaking away from Earth, and a brief revolution occurs early in the book which Myra declines to get involved in. Her story concerns the pressures being brought on her and her country as a result of the revolution.
The other half of the book is the story of Clovis colha Gree, a Scholar and shipbuilder in Scotland in the unspecified future (but probably sometime in the 25th or 26th century; certainly no earlier than the 23rd). Clovis meets and falls in love with Merrial, a Tinker. The Tinkers are the keepers of computer technology, although their ability to innovate new technologies has been lost. This future world considers Myra to be the "Deliverer", who saved the world from destroying itself, and whose final acts left near orbit so clogged with debris that space travel was no longer viable. Nonetheless, the Scots are building a spaceship. Merrial and the Tinkers think that the Scholars have some key information about the Deliverer which they need for some hidden purpose, and they use Clovis to get it.
The Sky Road is a considerably lower-tech book than its predecessors. It's also very baffling in its setting, as it seems to completely ignore the events of The Cassini Division, which should take place between Myra's time and Clovis', and which features a world in which electronic technology is unavailable, chemical and mechanical technology is ascendant, and there is a widespread and powerful space movement which is perfectly capable of sending ships to and from Earth. Reconciling Myra's historical status with the events of The Cassini Division seems impossible, and the lack of historical reference in Clovis' time to David Reid or Jon Wilde seems difficult to believe.
The Sky Road is also a much lower-tech book than its predecessors: The "sense of wonder" factor is not as great. There's some nanotech, a powerful AI (which mostly stays in the background), and a few techie devices in Clovis' time, but mostly our heroes in both time periods are surrounded by 20th century tech (guns, personal computers) with the occasional enhancement (faster trains). Disappointing.
But the book's biggest problem is that it doesn't really seem to be about anything. Myra is backed into a corner early on and spends most of the book trying to live up to her moral obligations despite the lack of resources to do so. The action she ultimately has to take is telegraphed a mile away, and doesn't feel like either a compromising or a vindication of her values; she's just too pragmatic for that.
Clovis' story, meanwhile, is largely one of discovery: Who the Tinkers are, what they're doing, what Myra was really like. It's not really all that much of a story, actually, just a footnote to Myra's tale. And neither story feels complete; the ramifications of the actions taken in each thread are left almost entirely unexplored, leaving you to wonder, "What happens next?" If this is the last book in the series, then we'll never know.
As always, MacLeod's handling of his medium is artful, but his subject matter is just not very thrilling here. Try his earlier books instead.
Cosmonaut KeepTor, HC, © 2001, 300 pp, ISBN #0-765-30032-X
Reviewed June 2001
With Cosmonaut Keep, Ken MacLeod finally turns away from the "Fall Revolution" universe of his first four novels, although his new space has many similarities. (The new trilogy is entitled "Engines of Light".) Moreover, this novel employs the same writing trick - separate but connected narratives in two different time periods, one first-person the other third-person - that he used in The Stone Canal and The Sky Road. Ironically (or perhaps appropriately), Cosmonaut Keep is not as leading-edge as Canal was, nor as aimless as Sky Road. It's somewhere in the middle, which is both relieving and disappointing.
The time: Some point in the future, probably centuries from now. The place: Mingulay, a human-dominated world in the "Second Sphere", a segment of space hundreds of light years from Earth. The secret of space travel is known only to the giant Krakens who pilot their ships between worlds. Many other species take passage on these ships, including the Saurs, dinosaur-like (and perhaps -descended) sentients who live for centuries and are culturally reticent despite their carnivorous background. Several thousand years ago, the saurs began abducting humans from Earth, and those humans have now formed their own society on many worlds, somewhat intertwined with the Saurs and some other species.
Mingulay was one such world, but it was disrupted by the arrival of the Bright Star, a ship from Earth which was built and navigated by humans, a feat never accomplished by any species other than the Krakens. Hundreds of years later, the Star's descendents have lost the ability to navigate, but Gregor Cairns, a researcher into the biology of small squid species, has been recruited by his grandfather to help finish the "great work" so that the humans of Mingulay can return to the stars. The flashpoint occurs when a Kraken ship comes to trade on Mingulay, and Gregor falls for Lydia de Tenebre, one of the shipboard women, not realizing that his co-worker Elizabeth Harkness is in love with him.
Alongside this story is the story of Matt Cairns, Gregor's ancestor, a programmer and hacker in London sometime in the late 21st century. A Russian invasion has resulted in Europe being turned into a socialist state, although for the most part Europeans seem to accept this change. (The Americans, obviously, don't.) Shortly after E.U. scientists on a station in the asteroid belt announce that they've contacted alien life within the belt, Cairns' friend Jadey arrives with a disc of data purportedly from the aliens explaining how to build a starship and its attendant drive.
Matt's story explores the politics of his era, and the formation of the alliance which creates humanity's first starship, and how modern humans get to Mingulay.
Little in Cosmonaut Keep is as mind-blowing as The Stone Canal or The Cassini Division. The most interesting ideas involve the population of the Second Sphere and the fact that most species don't have star travel capabilities, but rely on the enigmatic Krakens. The cultural division between humans and Saurs is also intriguing, as is the impact that the Bright Star's arrival has on everyone (albeit with the decades-long time delay for other worlds to learn of the development).
Moreover, Cosmonaut Keep ends like the first book of a trilogy it supposedly is: Gregor achieves his immediate goals in gathering information to complete the Great Work, and Matt pushes to (almost) the completion of the first starship, but neither ending is satisfying. Matt is implied to leave a great deal of his life behind, which seems like a huge blow which isn't explored, while Gregor's triangle with Lydia and Elizabeth is left hanging. The novel devotes too much time for either of these issues for them to just be dropped.
Still, if there are future books following this one, and they follow the same characters, then there's a lot of promise here to explore this universe. For instance, the relationship between the aliens in the asteroid belt to the aliens we see on Mingulay is not explained, and raises some interesting questions about their interactions. On the other hand, if MacLeod's next book is simply another story in the same universe, rather than a proper continuation, then Cosmonaut Keep may be, in final analysis, an interesting but frustrating entry in his oeuvre.
Dark LightTor, HC, © 2002, 271 pp, ISBN #0-765-30302-7
Reviewed February 2002
Dark Light picks up shortly after Cosmonaut Keep leaves off, with Gregor Cairns, his lover Elizabeth Harkness, his long-lived ancestor Matt Cairns, and his Saur friend Salasso pilot the ancient Bright Star from Mingulay to Croatan using a navigation program Gregor has designed. It's the first human-navigated starship voyage since the Bright Star arrived in the Second Sphere centuries ago.
Landing at the port of Rawliston, the crew contacts their starfaring allies, the de Tenebre family, who are happy to see them, but it seems they're the only ones: Not only do other starfaring families (who hitch rides on Kraken-navigated starships crewed by Saurs) envy the de Tenebres and the Bright Star, but the Rawliston government seems none too taken with them either, and they impound the ship as a hazard.
Dark Light here becomes firmly Matt's book, moving away from the split narrative of Cosmonaut Keep in which Gregor shared the stage: Matt contacts some fellow immortals who travelled with him to the Second Sphere on the Bright Star: Grigory Volkov and Armen Avakian. His mission is to use some high tech brought with him on the Bright Star to contact one of the "gods", powerful but reclusive beings drifting through space, to learn why the Bright Star was brought to the Second Sphere. To do this, they need both to free the ship, and to construct EVA suits. To do the latter, they end up contacting the aboriginal people around Rawliston in the Great Vale, a move which pushes the cultures of Rawliston and the Great Vale uneasily together.
I'd thought Cosmonaut Keep was merely okay, but felt it was a good premise on which to build. Unfortunately, my reaction to Dark Light is that it's... merely okay. After mulling it over, I think that makes MacLeod's second and third novels, The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division great is that they're both focused stories, and they mix unusual political bents with high technology, exploring what the one does to the other and vice-versa. His other four novels fall short because they're less focused, and don't have much technology.
Dark Light's technology pretty much tops out at lightspeed drives and machines that can talk to gods, neither terribly enthralling as concepts. So Dark Light's ideas content rests on the social commentary, which isn't enough to carry the book: Rawliston has an interesting governing system where broad decisions are made by local popular vote, but the people empowered to act on those decisions are chosen by lot. The people of the Great Vale have a strict male/female division, but one based on gender rather than sex, involving certain rites of passage. So Stone, one of the supporting characters, is a male "woman", and Gail, a Rawliston woman, is treated by them like a man. Furthermore, Grigory and Matt have their own opinions on the government of Rawliston and how it might or might not benefit their aims.
Unfortunately, these notions aren't really well-integrated into the plot, which is about humanity's efforts to build starships against the apparent opposition of the Saurs, and of Matt's quest to learn why the Bright Star was brought to the Second Sphere. The characters and setting of the Great Vale seem like side-issues in comparison, and the central conflicts in the story - with the Saurs and the Rawliston government - feel like they're handled only superficially. (Presumably the Saur issue will be seen again, but it seems like a mere nuisance here as opposed to a significant opposition by a substantially more advanced power.)
I'm finding this series disappointing so far. Matt is a moderately engaging character, as is Grigory, but the story's direction seems fragmented and too often diverted from the interesting issues. The stories are well-paced and the settings well-portrayed, but I'd rather MacLeod pared down the cast and settings and dealt with the larger subjects of the story.
Engine cityTor, HC, © 2003, 304 pp, ISBN #0-765-30502-X
Reviewed April 2004
The conclusion to the Engines of Light trilogy, Engine City finally delivers some goods - but it feels too little, too late.
Having learned from the microcosmic "gods" who inhabit the asteroid belts of the alien "octopods" who helped raise the Saurs and Krakens to the level of spacefaring races, our heroes from the world of Mingulay feel compelled to defend against the probable return of the aliens. To that end, Volkov, a long-lived Cosmonaut from Earth, travels to Nova Babylona - the capital city of the largest human world in the Second Sphere - to prod them to develop industrially so they can fight off the aliens.
On Mingulay, however, biologists Gregor Cairns and Elizabeth Harkness are suddenly introduced to the alien Selkies, and through them, to the Octopods themselves. Along with Gregor's Cosmonaut ancestor Matt and a few others from Mingulay, they reason out that the gods are playing various aliens against one another, and decide that integration with the Octopods may benefit all concerned. Thus they head to Nova Babylona to try to forestall Volkov's plans.
Unfortunately, thanks to the limits of lightspeed travel, they find Volkov has completely transformed New Babylon into the "engine city" of the title, and they find that their goal of integrating all the races is considerably more complicated than they'd thought.
Engine City is not a bad book, but it considerably diminished its predecessors by making it feel like it took nearly 600 pages to get to "the point": the difficulty of integrating races with disparate points of view - even within their own cultures! - under decidedly suboptimal circumstances. Had the trilogy been released as a single 900-page novel, it would have felt tremendously disappointing, with vast chunks of the story feeling downright superfluous. And Engines of Light does feel more like a single, continuous story than the different views on a period of social evolution that we see in the Fall Revolution quartet.
I think the trilogy's story is undone by a variety of factors: First, the tech level sticks mostly to lightspeed drives and nuclear weapons, and doesn't do anything especially compelling with it. The more advanced tech of the Octopods arrives too late to really make things exciting, although it leads to some entertaining moments. The powers of the "gods" never seemed very convincing, either; they seem more like particularly adroit politicians but susceptible to some macroscopic sentients putting them out of their misery if they could just band together for a few years to do so.
The story meandering all over the place - particularly into area I don't find interesting or have trouble believing in (such as the problems humans have in navigating lightspeed ships, which I found impossible to swallow, try though I did) was what really derailed me. What's the big hook to make me care about the story? The characters have a little texture, but none of them has an arc in which they truly grow or change or entertain (Matt Cairns is easily the most enjoyable character, but he's also one of the flattest). Even once the aliens are here and our heroes are trying to deal with the results of Volkov's efforts, the story portrays some scenes of great action, but it feels like the deeper ramifications of these actions on the characters and the setting are held back. The process of creating "engine city" or welcoming the Octopods into a culture is not really shown, and the results are shown only in a broad sense. It feels like there's never really a payoff.
While I recognize that MacLeod's stories deal with social and political elements as much as scientific ones, I never really cared much about those elements in this trilogy, and the distractions and sometimes seemingly-endless exposition prevented me from being able to figure out what MacLeod wanted me to care about. There was material in here which made me think... but never very deeply, and never for very long. And none of it had the "oh wow, that's really cool" feel of The Cassini Division.
I can't really recommend the trilogy or the book to people. If you're looking for some MacLeod to try, start with one of his first series of novels. If you're already a MacLeod fan, then you may find this disappointing, and in any event you can safely skip Cosmonaut Keep and Dark Light, as most of the good stuff is in Engine City.
But this trilogy has certainly been a big blow to my interest in continuing to follow MacLeod's work. Maybe it's just the case that The Cassini Division and The Stone Canal are the exceptions in MacLeod's novels rather than the rule, in which case maybe it's time for me to get off the train.
Newton's WakeTor, PB, © 2004, 339 pp, ISBN #0-765-34422-X
Reviewed February 2006
My book discussion group put Newton's Wake on its reading list this month, so I decided to give MacLeod another whirl, despite being so disenchanted with his Engines of Light trilogy. Wake is a standalone novel, so if nothing else I figured it should be more to-the-point.
Following the Hard Rapture of the near future when artificial intelligences transcended and decimated the Earth, mankind fragments, some people remaining behind in the solar system while others undergo a diaspora and settle other worlds. Starfaring humanity ends up in several groups, one of the most aggressive being the Scottish Carlyles, who discover and control a web of gates among worlds. The gates are a key to commerce (although FTL travel exists too), and the Carlyles continue to explore the Skein, whose origins remain unknown.
Many centuries hence, Lucinda Carlyle leads a team of combat archaeologists through a gate onto the world of Eurydice, which happens to be populated by a lost human colony from the days of the Rapture and in addition to them hosts a spire of posthuman - and possibly alien - power. Carlyle's team awakens the spire, which surreptitiously infects a nanotech-capable mining ship in Eurydice space. Lucinda herself is captured even as her gate home is destroyed by the surprisingly advanced technology of the locals.
It's revealed that during the Hard Rapture, many human minds were captured and stored in memory, and that various parties have the ability to resurrect them. Lucinda's familiar in her suit, once an Israeli professor, is resurrected by the Eurydiceans. And a Eurydicean playwright manages to resurrect a pair of Rapture-period folk singers to help stage a new play.
Things come to a head when another of the powers in humanspace moves in to lay claim to - or at least negotiate with - the Eurydiceans. Lucinda escapes through another Skein gate and begins to plan how to beat back the other force, even as the machinations of the posthuman spire begins to move to its own purposes.
My synopsis hardly does it justice: Newton's Wake is a far-ranging book with multiple protagonists and a whole heck of a lot going on. Unfortunately, all the careening among characters leaves the book feeling decidedly fragmented. The story doesn't really belong to anyone, or even everyone; the characters provide various points of view, but none of them - even Lucinda, who gets the most screen time - are fully-formed.
Thematically, the book bears some similarity to Charles Stross' science fiction novels (MacLeod dedicates the book to Stross, in fact), but mainly just because it covers the same territory of recorded personalities and humans trying to find a place in a posthuman world. True to form, MacLeod sets up a variety of political viewpoints and builds to a climax involving the ambiguity of recorded personalities and the existence and fleshy resurrection thereof. Ultimately, though, I had an awfully hard time caring one way or the other about the viewpoints of any of the characters, and frankly felt that the last sixty pages or so were largely redundant following the climax of the larger events on Eurydice.
MacLeod lays out some fairly nifty technology, and there are lots of entertaining witticisms (especially surrounding the mechanisms of commerce in this universe), but although Newton's Wake is a lot livelier than the Engines of Light trilogy, I thought it was a story direly in need of some focus and emotional grounding. So overall this book hasn't really rekindled my interest in MacLeod's novels. It's better, but... it just ain't working for me.
hits since 13 August 2000.
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