31 May 2007

Locus Magazine reviews Ken MacLeod

by Gary K. Wolfe

from Locus Magazine, May 2007

The Execution Channel, Ken MacLeod (Orbit 978-1841493480, £17.99, 320pp, hc) April 2007. (Tor 978-0765313324, $24.95, 288pp, hc) June 2007.

In case you've been waiting for the first new blog-friendly buzz movement of 2007, you might want to take note that Ken MacLeod's apocalyptic thriller The Execution Channel arrives with two handy labels already attached: MacLeod himself, in a recent interview at SF Site, argues that, with New Space Opera pretty much in the can, maybe it's time to revisit another popular subgenre from an earlier era, the British disaster novel — hence (his term) the New British Catastrophe. And Cory Doctorow, approaching the novel from quite another angle, offers the term "Blogothriller," referring to the crucial role that blogosphere disinformation wars play in the novel. Both terms, it seems to me, tend to reduce the novel to something less than the sum of its parts, and for a relatively short, deceptively straightforward near-future thriller, it has a good many parts. Doctorow's term, apart from the fact that it sounds like it belongs on a Pokémon card, doesn't really deal with the sheer physicality of MacLeod's headlong narrative — at one point, one of the characters comes to the realization that in the end, it's all about bodies in motion — and MacLeod's own characterization calls attention to the catalog of disasters that he offers with something approaching abandon — an apparent nuclear blast at a US airbase in Scotland, race riots, sabotaged highway overpasses, etc. But the novel isn't entirely about blowing stuff up, either. To be sure, the British catastrophe tradition to which MacLeod refers has come a long way from the droughts and triffids and grass plagues of the 1950s, thanks in part to J.G. Ballard, and Ballard's decadent mediascape is also echoed in the grim conceit that gives MacLeod's novel its title — an anonymous satellite newsfeed that broadcasts nonstop executions and tortures from all over the world. (And how far is YouTube from that already?)

As an espionage writer, MacLeod has also learned a few things from the Le Carré tradition of everything-anyone-knows-is-wrong. James Travis is a software consultant (and foreign agent, it turns out) whose daughter Roisin is a peace activist and whose son is in the army when the aforementioned Air Force base explosion occurs, bringing them all under suspicion (Roisin had been spying on the base for her peace movement just before the blast and witnessed a mysterious object being unloaded). As Travis and his daughter try to find a way to rendezvous and the son is arrested, we're introduced to a variety of other sharply drawn characters — Mark Dark, a young conspiracy blogger from Indiana who spins elaborate theories while worrying about when his mom will get home; Jeff Paulson, a somewhat brutal American interrogator; Bob Cartwright, a disinformation specialist; and various agents of MI5, Special Branch, and the French government. We learn that, while we're in a chaotic post 9/11 world, it's not quite our post 9/11 world; 9/11 itself is different, as is the 2000 US Presidential election (and MacLeod has some satirical fun with the changes). Disasters in the US have led to thousands living in FEMA camps or in a form of indenture, while continuing terrorism has led to anti-Muslim race riots in England, and the old Communist powers seem newly resurgent, both technologically and economically. While the key mystery of the plot is what exactly happened at that Air Force base, the real power of the book comes from its unremittingly bleak portrayal of a world in a state of disassembly.

At the same time, The Execution Channel is pure SF. It not only draws on traditions of the disaster novel, the alternate-world scenario, and the cyberthriller, but early on begins dropping hints that something more radical may be at stake — references to Planck anomalies, to the Heim Theory of revisionist physics and gravitation (although MacLeod alters this a bit to suit his needs and even changes the real Burkhard Heim's name to Gerhard Heim), and — perhaps most subtly but tellingly — to James Blish, whose "spindizzies" from Cities in Flight are briefly discussed by two characters in the context of the Heim Theory. All of this becomes crucial to the novel's stunning ending, but MacLeod is careful to keep the brief bits of speculative science from interfering with the story's pacing (and perhaps from intimidating non-SF readers), just as he offers us only brief glimpses of the ways in which this world differs from our own. But of course it's the ways in which MacLeod's world doesn't differ from our own that makes The Execution Channel genuinely frightening.

Read more! This is one of over forty reviews from the May 2007 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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