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.

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