When I first picked up Ken MacLeod’s The Star Fraction in 1995 I hadn’t been reading much science fiction for a while but I had just picked up Red Mars, which had gone a long way to reigniting my interest and I was looking for more.
I don’t know what attracted me to MacLeod’s book – the black cover wasn’t that remarkable – but pick it up I did and read the blurb. Then I distinctly remember opening the book and reading the first chapter, dragged along by the opening action.
It was like someone had written a sf book just for me.
The opening of the book is set in Brunel University in Uxbridge – an august(ish) educational institution I’d not long taken my leave from and I was still living in the area.
And the story contains one of the most accurate portrayals of the squabbling and bickering of the British left ever transcribed to paper. At the time I read the book I was an accidentally elected Labour councillor (honestly, who knew the Tory vote could ever collapse that far!) and had devoted far too much of my youthful zeal to the “angels on pinhead” arguments that divided factions and, indeed, fractions on the British left.
To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, he had me at: “It was hot on the roof.”
I liked it so much that MacLeod holds the distinction of being the only writer I’ve ever been so excited to read that I’ve immediately (and perhaps unwisely) emailed him. Yes, dear reader, I wrote a fan letter.
The Fall Revolution books remain amongst my favourites but though the Engines of Light series often began with promise, I never felt that they quite delivered and that story, as a whole, I found enjoyable but not rewarding. I began to worry that perhaps we’d got the best of Mr MacLeod in his first three books and that it was to be all down hill from here.
So the fact that Learning the World turned out to be a real delight came as both a relief and a pleasure. And now comes The Execution Channel, which is MacLeod’s best book to date.
The Execution Channel is a return to MacLeod’s earliest ground. Set in a recognisable but fractured future, where big government struggles to impose control over a crumbling order, there’s a sense that, while this history isn’t exactly in line with his earlier books, The Execution Channel could easily have been a prequel to the Fall Revolution stories. The differences, of course, stem from the more-or-less unpredictable events that have occurred in the real world over the last twelve years and which intimately inform this contents of this.
The world that MacLeod’s characters inhabit is one where, as the strapline on the book’s cover has it “the war on terror is over – terror won”. The world is a balkanised mess with bitter struggles and terrorism tearing nations apart. America, the world’s only superpower, is rampaging around without restraint while resurgently communist China and India and the ever tricky French might be plotting something huge, or might just be bluffing. The nation’s infrastructure is crumbling and the population are suspicious, angry and ready to lash out against perceived enemies given any provocation and the slightest excuse.
Which is where, courtesy of a nuclear-sized explosion witnessed by Roisin Travis, The Execution Channel begins. Her father James, an ex-spy, and her brother, a serving soldier, are all quickly dragged in to a vast conspiracy as terrorist attacks across Scotland and England increase tensions and unleash race riots as the blame falls on the usual suspects.
The plot of The Execution Channel is satisfyingly complex – with plenty of misdirection. Most pleasing is the way that the story’s resolution is placed out in the open all the way through the story but still manages to come as an enormous surprise as the least likely of outcomes. The final chapter left me with an enormous, disbelieving grin. It is an act of real chutzpah on MacLeod’s part and both immensely funny and genuinely surprising.
Another particularly fine moment is when Roisin approaches her “allies” in the local peace movement for support. They are, of course, totally split by personal animosity, mutual distrust and ideological division and completely useless. The only unrealistic thing about MacLeod’s portrayal of this meeting is that he doesn’t – probably for the sake of the reader’s sanity – force us to sit through the appraisal of the minutes of the previous meeting, the matters arising, the accounts and the petty “business” that dominates all such committees before we get to the real meat of the meeting. Indeed, there’s a fair chance that in the real world, Roisin would never have got to make her case because the meeting’s time would have been entirely taken up with “business”.
There’s much in The Execution Channel that is immediately recognisable and chilling in an “if this goes on” way. The injection of surveillance into every element of our lives, the arrogance of American military power, the growing sense of alienation and division in a society that is becoming, at the same time, ever more integrated and interwoven. The novel is also filled with references to older science fiction – most notably it updates the British disaster story (chucking in elements of Wyndham and television shows like the final Quatermass) to good effect.
That’s not to say that there aren’t moments where I found myself disagreeing quite vehemently with MacLeod. The editorial rant that he puts in the mouth of conspiracy nut/blogger Mark Dark about how (in this world) everything went tits up when Al Gore not George W. won the 2000 American election might allow MacLeod to satisfy his desire to declare that “all politicians are the same” but it is a distraction and the notion that one man at the top can’t ultimately make a difference sits oddly with the exertions he puts his little-folk at the bottom through as they strive to do their bit to make a difference. What is the point of the novel if nothing anyone does really matters in the long run?
And, while MacLeod’s portrayal of his hopeless, incapable left-wingers is funny, it hardly rings true in an era where grassroots protest has been increasingly adopted as a tool across the political spectrum to the point where multinationals are willing to invest large sums of money in “astroturf” protest groups designed to mimic those who have opposed them in the past.
The blogosphere also makes a prominent appearance in this novel – primarily as a source of disinformation – but it is a curiously denuded Internet, with little sign of the argument, disagreement and downright contrariness that characterises the real thing. More importantly, and most fantastically of all, The Execution Channel assumes that there are people out there who actually give a shit what bloggers might say. And that’s obviously nonsense.
Despite these reservations and disagreements , The Execution Channel is MacLeod’s best novel-length work to date. It will be getting my nomination for the BSFA shortlist (and deserves a place on other awards’ lists too) though it is, I think, going to face some tough competition to win.