Reviews: Beyond the Hallowed Sky

Beyond the Hallowed Sky,
Ken MacLeod,
Orbit Books

I’m always happy when there is a new Ken MacLeod book to be read; for my money he is one of the UK’s most consistently impressive and thought-provoking SF writers. In Beyond the Hallowed Sky we have not only a new book, but the start of a trilogy – the Lightspeed series. As that would suggest, this is a story in which the development of FTL (Faster Than Light) travel is fairly prominent. In the summer of 2067, Lakshmi Nayak receives an old-fashioned, physical letter, containing detailed mathematical proofs, which would seem to indicate that FTL travel is in fact possible. It seems to echo some thoughts she has already had but not fully formulated, but who was thinking not only on the same lines but ahead of her, and knows of her interest to contact her? Examining the letter the seemingly impossible explanation is that she sent it to herself – from the future…

After finally publishing the work, Lakshmi’s reputation is ruined by many of her peers; she eventually decides to take an offer to defect to the Union bloc and travels to Scotland, a member state, where after some Le Carre-esque spycraft in the middle of Edinburgh, the Union’s AI guides her around the spies of rival powers and to a job interview on the west coast. The job offer is genuine, but the AI has other reasons, not least the development of her FTL ideas into a workable engine for a starship.

This brings us to the Clyde Coast and John Grant, a “responsible” (a person who was seriously active and important in a previous revolution in the Union) and his comrades who run an engineering co-operative making ships on the Clyde. The AI guides them together to start a collaboration which could create the first FTL ship – rather pleasingly, Clyde-built, like the great ships of the previous two centuries of tradition on that great river.

But there’s more going on here – out for a coastal stroll John sees a submarine leaving the Faslane naval base – in this decade Scotland is no longer part of the UK, but an independent member of the Union. However, Westminster held onto the vital nuclear submarine base of Faslane as part of the deal, and shares it with their US allies. When John sees a submarine leave the base and sail out into open water it’s nothing unusual – until it seems to hover above the waves for a moment before vanishing in a shimmering haze. Most don’t believe him, the all-seeing AI carefully wipes his photographic evidence from his devices. Is it possible that FTL is not only possible, but other power blocs already have it?

MacLeod proceeds to gives us an expanding universe with three main arcs: our future Scotland and the small team trying to engineer their FTL ship (without the rival power blocs knowing), a Union science team on a floating base in the violent atmosphere of Venus, paying host to a visiting android who is also a spy for British Intelligence (which they are aware of, all sides are playing a version of The Great Game here), and a distant world around another star, reached by FTL, and the science teams operating there. Crossing all of this is a discovery that ties all three worlds together in a way that isn’t clear yet.

The multiple, overlapping story arcs work nicely to build up a three dimensional picture of this future society, dominated by three rival power blocs; as with a number of his previous works, MacLeod conjures up a believable socio-political structure, giving it just enough details that we can grasp the situation but not bogging it down with too much exposition, so the narrative flows at a good rate of knots. Along the way we get to consider various weighty topics, from the notions of political ideology and patriotism to the use and limits of AI in the human sphere, and the exploration/exploitation of other worlds. Looking forward to the second volume.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

The Corporation Wars come to a cracking conclusion with Emergence

The Corporation Wars Book 3: Emergence,

Ken MacLeod,

Orbit Books

(cover design by Bekki Guyatt)

I’m always a happy reader when I have a new Ken MacLeod book waiting for my attentions, he has, consistently, been one of the most interesting and thoughtful science fiction writers in these islands for the last couple of decades. As well as intriguing thoughts and gripping stories, Ken is also adept at doing what the best science fiction does – using SF to address the problems of human nature. And in the Corporation Wars trilogy that’s no mean feat, considering, for the most part, the various characters in this series aren’t actually human. We have robots who have achieved sentience, we have computer AIs which oversee much of the Earth policy in this distant proto-colony system, and we have the emulation of human minds running in digital simulations or, to interact with the real universe outside the computer reality, downloaded to mechanoid “frames”.

The first two volumes have seen these deceased humans – fighters and terrorists from two rival factions, the Axel (accelerationists) and the Rax (reactionaries, basically racist, Nazi, power-hungry types), their memories and minds digitally resurrected to man combat machines for Earth, as compensation for what they put the world through during their millennia-gone battles. But twenty light years from home and thousands of years into the future, not even in flesh bodies, these groups can’t help but revert to their previous behaviour… And yet some are starting to learn, starting to look back on what they did before their (usually violent) deaths, on how Earth society has evolved since then, and, importantly, to think about the now sentient robots they have been tasked with dealing with.

After much evolution and interaction – not to mention some spectacular action – in Dissidence and Insurgence, Emergence continues seamlessly (the overall effect, I found, is less that of reading a trilogy but one long tale with small restful pauses), all of the characters now very firmly established, developed. There are no ciphers or stock characters here, even the robots, the newest intelligent beings in the story, are evolving rapidly, showing individuality, wit, even friendship and care for others. And then there is the massive “super habital” world the colonising corporations have been orbiting for so long, finally brought fully on stage, and opening up yet another avenue for exploring how diverse and rich, and astonishing, life, in any form, can be.

There’s plenty to chew over here, from the rights of any sentient being (human, posthuman, robotic or otherwise) and how we deal with them (our behaviour to them saying much about our own moral faculties – or lack of them) to the use of economic and military power. In the Rax I thought I detected more anger than in the preceding volumes; here they are not just the far-right, but quite clearly Nazis, right down to the arm salutes as one group makes a grab for power, and I thought perhaps this was a quite understandable reaction to the hideous growth of such hate groups in the real world. But as well as the thought-provoking elements and the cracking sense of pace and action which pushes events along at a gratifying clip, there is also some humour here – the nasty space-Nazi trying to justify racial superiority when he is nothing but a digital emulation of his old mind in a robotic frame (ah, but an emulation based on a white brain! Yes, that’s how stupid and bigoted these people are). It’s a superb casserole of ingredients, building to the boil at just the right moment.

Emergence is out now from Orbit Books, you can read about the first volume here, and volume two here, while we have a recent report on some of the science fiction events Ken had as a guest selector at the Edinburgh International Book Festival here.