Review Date: 10 September 1999
The Sky Road, by Ken MacLeod
Orbit, London, UK, 1999
£16.99, ISBN: 1-85723-755-2
Review Copyright 1999 by Rich Horton
This is another excellent, engaging, novel from a fairly new Scottish writer, just now making his mark in the United States. His third novel, The Cassini Division (1998), was published here by Tor just this year (1999). The Sky Road is his fourth novel, not yet available in the US. But I am sufficiently a MacLeod addict that I get my fix from Amazon.co.uk as soon as I can. This probably does not quite jar my favorite of his novels, The Stone Canal (1996), from its position at the top of my personal MacLeod heap, but it's very fine, with yet another differently organized somewhat anarchic semi-utopia on display, as well as yet another look at the turbulent 21st century, and the menace of Artificial Intelligence.
Ken MacLeod's new book is an intriguing offshoot from his previous three novels. I'll give a brief summary of "the story so far", if you will. The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, and The Cassini Division all come from the same future history. In this future, the world has fractured into numerous smaller states by the early 21st Century, essentially in a continuation of the process begun in the ex-communist states in the 1980s. The Star Fraction treats of a small slice of time in the 2040s, dealing mostly just with the UK, and portraying an interesting fractured society, with dozens of "micro-states" built around various political ideologies, from the Greens to gays to fundamentalist Christians to various flavours of Socialists to anarchists, as well as loyalists of the Republic which succeeded the monarchy of our time, and loyalists (Hanoverians) to a version of that monarchy. All the political viewpoints were a key factor in the interest of The Star Fraction, but the main plot surrounded an artificial intelligence called the Black Planner; and the fear that AI's would take over the world. This turns out to be probably the central theme in all MacLeod's work (well, along with possible somewhat anarchist utopias). The Stone Canal is set on two timelines. One begins in our '70s, following Jon Wilde and Dave Reid, two friends/enemies who begin as Socialist-leaning students in Glasgow, and end up with great power, much of which in different ways ends up promoting space exploration. The other timeline is far in the future, on the distant world of New Mars, as downloaded and revived version of both Wilde and Reid struggle again, this time over the rights of AI's, and the dangers in particular of the "fast folk", AI's who run so fast that human timescales are enormously long to them. The Cassini Division is set shortly after The Stone Canal, and again concerns the dangers of the "fast folk", many of whom have colonized Jupiter. The Cassini Division also features a trip to New Mars. These three books, in addition to the persistent worry about AI's, portray a variety of political organizations, and forms of organization, most notably perhaps the anarcho-socialist society of the Solar System and the anarcho-capitalist society of New Mars, in the time of The Cassini Division.
The Sky Road is kind of an "alternate history" of MacLeod's future. The earlier parts, chronologically, of The Stone Canal, and all of The Star Fraction, are set in a common past to both The Sky Road and to The Cassini Division, but one of the events in The Stone Canal goes a different way in The Sky Road. Like The Stone Canal (and, to a lesser extent, The Cassini Division), this book is told in two threads, one in the past, in 2059, and the other some centuries in the future. The pastward thread follows Myra Godwin-Davidova, American-born lover of both Jon Wilde and Dave Reid, and a minor character in The Stone Canal. Myra, 105 years old, is the head of the government of a mini-state near Kazakhstan, called the International Scientific and Technical Worker's Republic. At the opening of the action, the Sino-Soviet Alliance, or the Sheenisov, is advancing on Kazakhstan. Both the reformed UN and Dave Reid's Mutual Protection Society are trying to take control of the world, partly from space, and to stop the Sheenisov. Myra goes on a whirlwind tour of Kazakhstan, Turkey, the US and the UK, looking for military assistance. What she has to offer are the world's remaining supply of nuclear weapons. But her problem is, it's not at all clear who the real enemy is, or for that matter how many enemies there are. She also deals with her personal problems: her age, her guilt over such betrayals of her past ideals as the use of slave labour, and the selling of nuclear protection, and her loss of yet another loved one in suspicious circumstances.
The other thread features Clovis colha Gree, a young student in an odd, somewhat Utopian, Scotland. He is working on a project building a spaceship: the first spaceship to be built since the mysterious "Deliverance". It seems that since this "Deliverance" the world has reorganized itself on a rather pastoral model. Clovis' field of study is history, particularly the life of the "Deliverer". (The reader figures out right quick that the "Deliverer" is Myra Godwin-Davidova.) Clovis meets a beautiful woman called Merrial, and they fall tumultuously in love. But Merrial is a tinker, and the tinkers are regarded with suspicion by the rest of society, as they are the only people who deal with the somewhat restricted computer technology available in this future. Clovis is drawn by his love for Merrial and his thirst for knowledge about the Deliverer to a questionable search for secret files of the Deliverer's: ostensibly to help protect the spaceship project. But this search leads them not only to some anti-hagiographic knowledge about the Deliverer (her use of nuclear weapons, for example), but also to some potential use of the "black logic", the "path of power".
The two threads converge to reveal to the reader some, at least, of what's going on: what the Deliverance really was, and what "black logic" might be, and part of the nature of this future society. It's intriguing, and clever, and by the end quite moving. (The reader of the other books is also treated to a few cameos by major characters from them: Dave Reid, of course, and also Jordan Brown and Cat Duvalier from The Star Fraction, and, a bit too cutesily, I thought, a version of Ellen May from The Cassini Division.) The only weakness is that I found Merrial and Clovis' affair just a bit convenient: not all that easy to believe. (To explain exactly why would involve spoilers.) I also found the political machinations of Myra's time hard to follow, but that weakness is in me, partly, and partly, I think, its a feature: MacLeod 21st century really is a chaotic time. I also was impressed again by MacLeod's clever way with a phrase. His prose is sound, but only some of the time does it sing. (The first chapter is quite impressive in this way, but he doesn't really maintain that peak level.) However, throughout there are dry asides, and clever plays on words, and mordant observations that hit home.
Ken MacLeod continues to be one of the most exciting new SF writers. His books are politically intriguing, and honest, also full of nice SFnal speculation about future technology, nicely written, and fast moving. The characters are well-drawn, and almost always ambiguous. Each of his books is worth reading, and The Sky Road is one of his best.
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