Writers will know this feeling. There’s an idea you’ve been thinking about for years, and have never quite managed to land. And then a book comes out that uses those ideas — and does it better than you ever would. Welcome to BEYOND THE HALLOWED SKY by Ken MacLeod, who just did that to me. It would be infuriating if the book wasn’t so much fun.
Ken MacLeod has relaxed into being one of the smartest adventure writers in science fiction. His previous trilogy, THE CORPORATION WARS, was a riot – Accelerationists vs NeoReactionists, in the Matrix, in space, incorporated in pint-size war robots. This is the first of a new trilogy, but it gives the experience of a complete book while also clearly setting hooks for the sequels.
Set circa 2070, it begins like this: a scientist receives a letter from herself, which appears to have been written some years in the future. It provides most of a theorem for faster than light travel. She spends time filling in the gaps, and that’s when the trouble starts. Certain people don’t want it out in the world. This is because she’s independently invented a process that certain actors already have access to.
As you might gather from the CORPORATION WARS description, MacLeod is a political writer — but in a very playful way. In this new book, he tweaks the current geopolitical landscape to produce three power blocs; he never directly addresses that they’re all northern-hemispheric and non-African, but that fact haunts the concept at its edges. He gives each bloc its own massively powerful Siri/Alexa pervasive digital assistant. In concert with Neal Stephenson’s TERMINATION SHOCK, the novel presents the US as essentially a basket case. (Though in this case that may prove to be a blind.) Scotland has joined the European Union and England has thrown in with America . This is important – that scientist defects to Scotland, and that’s where she meets a revolutionary fighter turned conspiracy-theory fan and submarine builder who will, in a small Scottish shipyard, build her dream for her.
I delighted in — and yelled at in furious envy — MacLeod’s summoning of the Alcubierre drive theory, which has fascinated me for decades. It’s essentially the “warp bubble” from Star Trek, but far weirder and more fun, and MacLeod provides a wonderful variant on it. He also goes for the recent discussions about floating a colony in the clouds of Venus and really makes it work.
There are a few fun references to the work of Isaac Asimov – one overt, one less so unless you’ve read the whole I ROBOT sequence including the discovery of FTL travel therein. They signal the nature of this book as a kind of upgraded form of the old “Golden Age” sf stuff where scientists and engineers barge their way through the difficult universe via good old human ingenuity.
There are continual references to the “Black Gospels of Herculaneum,” which seems to refer to the burned bits of Epicurus’ ON NATURE. I have a feeling this is going to turn out to be important in the forthcoming books. Maybe you can put it together better than I can.
The book builds out three plot strands, which tie together at the end in a fairly unexpected and genuinely joyous way. It builds to its conclusion with speed and inventiveness; sacrifices some depth and texture on the way, but everything slams together with such unexpected joy at the end that you forgive it. The ending works as a charmingly open-ended climax and as staging for the sequel. If you get to the end and don’t feel like hanging in for more, the ending works for you too. It’s a clever trick. It’s a clever entertainment of a book.
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