Here's another old review, this time for Cosmonaut Keep, the first book in Ken MacLeod’s Engines of Light series:
Given that I recently managed to buy not one, but two copies of this book I thought I’d better give one of them a spin… what I found is that it is an excellent book, and was nominated for a Hugo Award for good reason (no, it couldn’t win, not against American Gods!). Recommended – and I’m now after the other two books in the Trilogy. One copy only, though.
Ken MacLeod provides us with skilled storytelling on a grand scale. This book has two, at least in this book, only loosely connected strands. One of them is classic Space Opera:
We find Gregor Cairns, a marine (exo)biologist conducting his research in the town of Kyovic, on the planet of Mingulay. The colony has regressed a lot, at least technologically, and can neither reach nor fly the spaceship, the ‘Bright Star’, which orbits their world. The story kicks off when another spaceship, carrying (human) traders from another star system visits Mingulay. The star ship, like all of them, are being flown by Kraken, whilst the gravity skiffs used, you guessed it, in gravity, are being piloted by Saurs (as the name suggests). Gregor, a direct descendant of the original ‘Navigator’, and part of the current ‘Cosmonaut Cadre’, gets tangled up in a (not very bizarre, but very adolescent) love triangle between one of the trader girls, and his lab assistant, Elizabeth Harkness.
The other strand could nearly be Cyberpunk – we find our protagonist, Matt Cairns, in a very recognizable future Edinburgh, managing projects with the help of his AIs and cyber agents, and working with legacy geeks, fixing errors in legacy systems, deeply buried under shells and shells of emulation (very realistic. Very scary in a geeky way). The political landscape has changed – the Communists have overrun (and rebuilt) Europe, which is now part of another Union of Republics, which includes Scotland, and the Federated UK (I leave the acronym to you…). This part of the story gets going when the EU space (mining) programme announces that it has made contact with Aliens, and of course when Matt gets his hands on a data disc with the construction plans for a proper, extraterrestrial, flying saucer. On his flight from the authorities to the US (Area 51, to be exact) and then to the space mining complex where contact was made (to build the saucer and space drive, of course), he gets entangled, you wouldn’t have guessed it, in a love triangle. Ugh.
At the beginning the two time lines don’t seem to have anything to do with each other, and Ken is very hesitant with providing hints on how they might connect. They do connect within the scope of this book though, just about.
The aliens are all very familiar – the Krakens are kinda like giant Octopi on Earth, the Saurs are, err, advanced Dinos (who still kill and eat their less advanced brethren on Mingulay). The only more interesting ones are the much more advanced, microscopic aliens living in huge colonies (not nanites, not a group mind) on asteroids all over the Universe (it appears), playing God.
The other thing which sets this book apart is the politics, and here Ken shows his colours (‘our only Trotskyite SF writer’, as my GF puts it). There is the usual level of fractions/factions within the socialist/communist block, intrigue, purges (not Stalinist, though, thankfully) and more. Great if you’re interested in these things, otherwise skimmable, I confess.
How much do I need to say about Ken MacLeod? Scot, left-leaning (without trying to define how far, and with which direction), frequently found at SF convention (GoH at Novembers’ Novacon, for example). He’s won 3 Prometheus Awards now (a political writer indeed…), plus a BSFA Award, and he has been nominated for everything else, repeatedly, so Hugo/Nebula/whatever is only a question of time. Especially if his writing keep up like this!
This is a great book, a page turner, with the love stories being the only point of (slight) annoyance for me (besides the book being too short…). But they are handled properly, resolved well, and needed to drive part of the plot. It’s just something I can do without in my books (got enough around me IRL).
Recommendation? Go get it if you haven’t read it yet. I’ve ordered the next two books in the trilogy, so look out for more on the series here!
More Ken MacLeod
Title: Cosmonaut Keep
Series: Engines of Light
Series Number: 1
Author: Ken McLeod
Reviewer URL: http://skating.thierstein.net
Publisher URL: http://www.orbitbooks.com
Publication Date: 2001
Review Date: 20 October 2006