Tag Archives: Ken MacLeod

The Execution Channel, Ken MacLeod

<em class="BookTitle">The Execution Channel</em>, Ken MacLeod

Tor, 2007, 285 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1332-4

Trying to discuss Ken MacLeod’s The Execution Channel is a lot like chasing a slippery bar of soap over a slick floor: It never stays still, defies any strong grip and presents serious potential for bruised shins in the effort. The novel cloaks itself in misleading genre protocols before revealing itself to be something entirely different, shoving optimism where readers have been conditioned to expect the worst. Alas, a good case can be made that the novel is never as good as when it’s being really, really awful.

Like all of MacLeod’s novels so far, it’s an intensely political piece of work. But unlike most of McLeod’s books so far, it’s a near-contemporary thriller that benefits from our familiarity with today’s world. Taking place in a near future where terrorism has grown even more vicious, The Execution Channel begins with a nuclear detonation on British soil, then follows a group of characters as governments go through an acute period of rage in trying to identify and catch the terrorists. There’s a conveniently well-connected family at the center of the story, one with a pacifist daughter, a solider son and a traitorous father. But there’s also a coordinated disinformation effort, a few conspiracy theorists, strong international tensions and a mysterious “execution channel”.

One thing’s for sure: MacLeod can do dark like few other writers. From the opening pages, we’re presented with a world that teeters on the brink of irremediableness, a world where the value of bad information has become higher than the true story. A world where viewers can tune in to a channel that solely presents violent executions. A world where conspiracy theorists are markedly better-informed than their saner relatives. A world where paid government operatives deliberately seed misinformation on blogs. A world racing to nuclear war and ever-more powerful weapons. “The War on terror is over. Terror won” says the front-cover blurb, and the impact is profound: Reading The Execution Channel is like taking an all-expense trip to a vision of how bad things could get within half a decade.

It’s written like a techno-thriller and reads like a particularly paranoid one: MacLeod has never been so accessible and so depressing. It uses just the slightest amount of future shock to sends current trend to a break point, and seeds just enough new ideas into the mix to please SF fans.

But if The Execution Channel looks like something at first, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will stay like that until the end. Throughout the course of the book, MacLeod betrays expectations three times. The first betrayal, that of the world in which the story takes place, is more amusing than consequential. The second betrayal, which shifts the novel’s genres in a fairly spectacular fashion, is clearly announced both by the author’s pedigree and by significant in-story clues. It’s the third betrayal that hurts most, ironically by providing an optimistic conclusion after nearly three hundred pages of increasing grimness: By that point, the fact that some characters will survive the story seems like a disappointment after so much grimness.

The biggest irony is that The Execution Channel serves the exact same science-will-save-us-all conclusion that’s been one of SF’s most reliable motif over its decades of existence. But by juxtaposing it onto a realistic framework of real-world horrors, it makes it feel hollow and undeserved. Whether this is reading a message where none were intended, or if the author is trying to tell us something about SF readers’ unrealistic expectations, is left to the reader to articulate.

Learning the World, Ken Macleod

Tor, 2005, 303 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31331-6

Stories of first contact between humanity and extraterrestrial civilizations have been a staple of the Science Fiction genre ever since the very beginning of the genre. It’s one of SF’s central myth: what happens when different mindsets meet. While the classic “First contact” story usually involved the aliens coming to us (“Take us to your leaders! No, wait, let’s land on the White House front lawn!”), it’s not rare to see the scenario played in reverse: In Vernor Vinge’s Hugo Award-winning A Deepness in the Sky, for instance, a nomadic human delegation encountered the aliens on their own turf, precipitating a technological revolution.

For better or for worse, Ken MacLeod’s Hugo-nominated Learning the World has a lot of superficial similarities with Vinge’s novel: It, too is a novel of first contact in which the humans are the visiting party. It, too, features a brand of humanity that is almost unrecognizable to us stock humans. It, too, takes a keen interest in the social consequences of first contact. (The title itself comes from the first obvious lesson to be gained from First Contact, and what it means for basic world-view assumptions.)

But Learning the World is a novel that comes five years after A Deepness in the Sky: It’s much shorter and has a different agenda in mind when comes the time to confront the issues of First Contact. High on its list of priorities is a set of reflections on the Fermi paradox and what it can possibly mean. As a piece of twenty-first century SF, it’s fluent in economics (the humans of the novel think nothing of describing their interactions in financial terms, with a constant impact of how they act and perceive their actions) and is very familiar with the accumulated mass of other First Contact scenarios. (Heck, the industrial-era alien characters are big fans of “engineering fiction”) It doesn’t innovate as much as it revisits a familiar scenario with the latest lingo and plenty of conceptual cross-breeding: the visiting humans, for instance, are genetically modified immortals traveling on a generation starship. As with MacLeod’s other novels, it’s often the details that make the story worthwhile: tantalizing hints of “fast burn” civilizations and of a society indissociable from ultra-capitalism. There are more than a few good laughs as the First Contact scenario escapes all careful planning. Heck, a good chunk of the novel is made of, essentially, blog posts.

Unfortunately, all of these good bits can’t amount to a spectacular novel. For such a short book, Learning the World is thin on plot: Not much happens in the first half, and the alien viewpoint chapters can often feel superfluous. Most of the novel’s truly interesting material comes in the last few pages, and even then they roll in a casual “hey, isn’t this interesting?” fashion. Heck, there’s an overall lack of danger, of passion from this book: It ends up passing through as a gentle first cozy contact novel featuring entirely rational characters without much at stake. (“Why, yes, we will break up our society… but everything has to be done for tea-time”) Indeed, some of the final plot developments take on a “ha, aren’t humans silly?” quality for which I’ve never had much use. Looking back upon the entire book, I remain surprised at how so much good material can feel so inconsequential: Is it worth asking if a more dynamic writer would be able to make more out of those same ideas? Or should I feel disappointed for feeling so disappointed?

I’ve had problems with MacLeod’s fiction before (it’s no accident if I hadn’t read anything of his since The Sky Road), and if Learning the World is a bit more accessible than his other books, it still doesn’t give me much reason to be enthusiastic about his fiction. Simply put, Learning the World has the impact of a minor work, with the slight advantage of being a completely standalone novel. MacLeod is a frighteningly smart guy, but this novel reads almost as a half-sketched first draft, with potential for more but a weak execution. It’s been nominated for a Hugo; great news for MacLeod, but there are at least two other better books on the ballot. I’m glad I read it, but no more.

The Cassini Division, Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 1998, 240 pages, C$18.95 tpb, ISBN 1-85723-730-7

It’s so difficult to write a good, original SF novel that writers who do manage it consistently deserve to be treasured. Why spend your time trying to figure out new and original futures when you can just file off the serial numbers of the STAR TREK universe and set a novel in this context? Why bother researching new emerging technologies when you can just randomly use buzzwords like nanotech, hyperspace and transhumanity?

Ken MacLeod is a young hot British author who’s quickly acquiring a reputation of being at the front of the SF idea-generator pack. With now four novels to his name, he’s only now beginning to make major impact on the American scene. His third book, The Cassini Division was the first to cross the Atlantic and be published by a major American SF publisher. Why the delay? Having read MacLeod’s first, The Star Fraction, I’d argue that it’s all about politics.

Most American SF readers -myself included- are simply not used to see complex political issues in science-fiction. When political issues are raised, they’re usually of a progressive/regressive nature: Should progress be unimpeded or not? Only a few writers -Kim Stanley Robinson, Bruce Sterling, L. Neil Smith, etc…- have gone beyond the simple regressive/progressive polarity that seems to dominate current American politics.

MacLeod’s novels are different. They take place in a common future where the predominant system is Communist/Socialist, make references to bad historical periods of American/UN empires, feature capitalism as almost a social disease, etc… Annoying stuff for the average American reader, which explains why MacLeod’s first novels never made it to our shores. Truth be told, The Cassini Division is his first novel to “overcome” MacLeod’s political preoccupations and deliver a good story.

His first novel, The Star Fraction, -available in America in a few select libraries- puts its complex politics above the plotting (which roughly concerned the making of a revolution in a chaotic feel-bad future) and suffered considerably from it. As an SF novel, it was pretty much an average effort, good enough to be a keeper but not going much further beyond that unless your politics happened to match with MacLeod’s own Socialist convictions.

The Cassini Division is better. It takes place farther in the future (diminishing the “oh, come on!” factor) is driven by a richer plot (briefly; humans against posthumans) and is strictly more enjoyable to read than its predecessors. There’s some satiric capitalist-bashing in here too, but the goofball treatment doesn’t grate at in The Star Fraction.

More importantly, The Cassini Division feels like fresh SF. The buzzwords are handled competently, the gadgets are new, plausible and interesting, the atmosphere of a new and interesting future is well-handled and the first-person narration is compulsively readable. It’s one of the few SF books of 1998 that deserve an eventual thorough re-read. Not many new novels on the market can claim to score points in all these categories. On the other hand, the zap conclusion will annoy more than a few readers.

Naturally, the above caveat about politics may very well not apply to readers who are older, wiser, or simply closer to MacLeod’s political opinions. As for the remainder, well, a little argumentation is almost invariably good for the brain. And frankly, this might be the highest -as well as the most truthful- compliment one can say about The Cassini Division: Not only is it fun, but it’s also pretty good for the brain.