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Ken MacLeod - DescentKen MacLeod is a Scottish award-winning novelist, with, including this book, 14 novels plus a number of collections and other works to his name. Descent, the novel at hand, is a near-future Alien abduction/Men In Black/Economic crisis and revolution story set in a near-future Scotland, which was written whilst he was Writer in Residence on the MA Creative Writing course at Edinburgh Napier University. It is full of fascinating ideas, which - no, let me start at the beginning.


The story plays mainly in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and with a very limited number of actual protagonists - I can count the main ones on one hand, with maybe one or two more in the second row (now here’s a change from the Nnedi Okorafor book I read before - this is a completely different approach). The rest is window dressing...


The story is told through the eyes a Scottish teenager (and later young man) - it took the book literally 100 pages to tell us that his name is Ryan Sinclair, up to that point I was not sure that all the threads, set at different points in time, really were of the same person. Thanks for letting us hang, Ken ;-)

But going back to Ryan - he’s living with his family, and doesn’t seem to be much of a rebellious teenager, really. He’s heading toward the end of his school life, with the final exams looming up, so we get revision, we get (token) drug experiences, and we get bad first sex. Times are hard, the economy is down in the doldrums, water is scarce, and we see civil disobedience of so-called 'Revolutionaries', with whom Ryan sympathises, a bit at least, even if they are deeply uncool.


We get knowing/sarcastic quotes: 

“I supposed I already had a wish to believe, despite daily evidence to the contrary, that some at least of the rulers of the world were rational, knew what they were doing and meant well.”


And then we get an encounter of the 3rd kind - with a typically insecure 15 year old as the lead character (how Unrealiable Witness!). And following that abduction experience (no anal probes, but aspirational messages for humanity instead. Not sure if that's better or worse...) we then get Men in Black, and recursive conspiracy theories concerning government cover-up and disinformation, as seen through impressionable adolescent eyes. 

But Ryan now has the Secret Knowledge: humans travel with aliens, and have been doing so for centuries if not millennia; he has met a Space Brother and a Space Sister (and their assocate Grey), and this is what drives his live, his choices, and his obsessions.


All this plays out in a world with its economy on its knees, a world “Ready for revolution” - but it never comes; are there secret government machinations, always giving just enough to keep this at bay?

I suspect that, across the book, there’s an economic lesson (or polemic?) hiding in here. And I’m not sure I can be bothered or care enough to dig it out, sorry.


As a whole this felt like sad story - a lot of it comes across as an object lesson in ‘how an alien abduction experience destroyed a young man’s life and future’. 

The book struck me as unsatisfactory on ever so many levels; it felt like it does not know what it wants, what it wants to be, or what it really wants to tell. There are many interesting topics and parts, many entertaining turns and funny quips. And yet it does not add up to something bigger, does not connect - a wasted effort, or maybe rather a wasted opportunity, I feel.


Some of the relationship stuff and some other exchanges between characters are toe-curling (yes, I’m sensitive to this. Canary in mine style).

But I also have to say, in defense of the book -  the fact that the author could keep me reading, and wanting to know what would happen, despite all the above betrays an inherent quality of the writing and the skill of the writer in engaging the reader, even if the book itself does not deliver on its promise.

And, obviously (or it should be), just because this did not work for me (and I generally like Ken’s stories) does not mean that this will not be a book you will enjoy greatly. As they say - your mileage will vary.


What else can I tell you? There is copious usage of Scots accent/lingo/dialect. I didn’t find this a problem, but then again, I might get some more exposure to this than your average reader, so might not be very representative. One for fans of Ken's writing, for people interested in SF set in Scotland, or in the Alien Abduction/YA angle, in my opinion.



More Ken MacLeod 

Title: Descent

Author: Ken MacLeod 

Reviewer: Markus

Reviewer URL:

Publisher: Orbit/Little Brown

Publisher URL:

Publication Date: March 2014

Review Date: 140422

ISBN: 9780748131443

Pages: 271

Format: ePub

Topic: SF

Topic: UFO

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