Review Date: 05 October 1998
The Star Fraction, by Ken MacLeod
Legend, UK, 1995
Trade Paperback edition: Legend, 1996, £5.99, ISBN: 0099558815
The Star Fraction is Ken MacLeod's first novel. He has since published two more; both set in the same "future history" as The Star Fraction. These are The Stone Canal (1996) and The Cassini Division (1998). So far none of these books have been published in the US, but happily I can say that Tor has just announced plans to publish at least the latter two in the near future.
I liked The Stone Canal a great deal (my review is here, and The Star Fraction no less. (I have yet to read The Cassini Division.) MacLeod is a very politically savvy writer, and his books are full of politics, but the politics is almost always expressed through action, or it is an integral part of the setting. In other words, the books aren't lectures: they are, rather, books that are about politics in interesting ways, ways that are integral to their themes. And I should add that besides being about politics, the books concern interesting future technology (especially computer technology and Artificial Intelligence), and they are centered on believable and likable characters. And they have rollicking plots, as well.
The Star Fraction follows several characters through a revolution of sorts in 21st Century Great Britain. As the novel opens, the UK of our time has undergone several political upheavals, and is now "balkanized" into quite a few different, nominally independent, political divisions. These include the "Hanoverians", apparently the closest thing to a controlling force on the island; the "Army of the New Republic", the remnants of a liberal/socialist republic which apparently succeeded the Kingdom of our present time; a number of basically independent "mini-states", some occupying only a few blocks of territory, with wildly different political organizations: these include the religious "states", radical Greens, homosexual enclaves, and, we assume, many more; and finally an anarchic area of London called Norlonto (North London Town). Furthermore, the whole world seems to be under the loose control of some combination of the US and UN, and such organizations as Stasis, which proscribes certain technology, and Space Defense, which controls the orbital anti-nuclear lasers. This society is fascinating, and the details are well portrayed, with off the cuff hints, and only the occasional well-done infodump.
The main characters are Moh Kohn, a basically Trotskyite mercenary; Janis Taine, a scientist studying memory enhancement; and Jordan Brown, a young atheist computer expert, fleeing from his upbringing in the Fundamentalist Christian enclave Beulah City. Their paths intersect when one of Moh's jobs involves defending Janis' lab: Stasis seems to have decided that Janis' research is dangerous, and Moh takes her to Norlonto, in the process becoming infected her new memory drug. At the same time Jordan encounters the mysterious "Black Planner", an entity of the net, who some think may be the long-feared "Watchmaker": an AI coalesced from the combined networked computing power of the world. Jordan also flees to Norlonto, and hooks up with Janis and Moh. Moh soon begins to remember details about his late father's work, which involved a freeware program called (cleverly) Dissembler, which has become omnipresent on the world's computers. And people are beginning to ask Moh what he knows about a mysterious organization called The Star Fraction.
The novel is fast moving and clever throughout. The action is resolved intelligently: none of the characters really know what they're doing, or necessarily why. This results in some wonderful irony, and in a believable and honest plot. The villains have believable, even defensible, motives; and the heroes, while they are virtuous, may not be right. (Or, better, what is "right" is ambiguous.)
A further delight of the book is MacLeod's writing. He is a clear and elegant writer, with a great ear for clever brand names and other phrases, which subtly illuminate the nature of this future world. In this he is like Greg Egan and perhaps most of all Bruce Sterling. As with those two writers, MacLeod's near futures seem fully furnished, real. He also loves puns (i.e. "the house ... had the look of a castle in which there had been many wild knights"). Usually these are fun, and work to further enhance our feeling for his setting; but sometimes this facet of MacLeod's writing may be a bit overdone, or self-indulgent. At times MacLeod is capable of exhilarating flights of metaphor, such as his description of Moh's first experience of what we might tiredly call "cyberspace": several pages of kinesthetic description ("She wiped the sarcasm from her lips and shook in small drops, like sneers, from her fingers") which was both fun to read and a reasonable representation of what Moh might have felt.
This is an excellent book, and all the more remarkable for being a first novel. Iain Banks' jacket quote says "this man's going to be a major writer": for my money, he already is.
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