Thursday, August 2, 2018

Birthday Review: Cosmonaut Keep, by Ken MacLeod

Cosmonaut Keep, by Ken MacLeod

A review by Rich Horton

Today is Ken MacLeod's 64th birthday, so in his honor I'm reposting this review I did for my SFF Net newsgroup way back in 2000, when Cosmonaut Keep first appeared. (Some of the references are out of date, no doubt.)

(Cover by Stephen Martiniere)
Now as to Cosmonaut Keep.  I've rapidly become a huge fan of Ken MacLeod's.  His first four novels are all inter-related, representing two alternate branches of a future history which diverged in the middle of the 21st century. They are heavily political in content, and the politics is interesting stuff: a mix of somewhat utopian socialism, somewhat utopian libertarianism, and grittily realpolitik views of a decidedly non-utopian near future with a chaotic mix of extrapolations of all sorts of political trends.  The other major thread in those novels was the development of Artificial Intelligence, and in particular its potential dangers for ordinary humans.  Indeed, each of MacLeod's first four novels features what could be called a genocide of AI's. 

Those are good stuff, but MacLeod was pretty much mining the same vein with them.  So it's nice to seem him branching out somewhat with Cosmonaut Keep.  This book is set in an entirely different future.  Instead of AI's, there are several different species of aliens.  And while there is a near future depicted as a realpolitik drenched chaotic mix of extrapolations of political trends (mainly a revitalized Communism versus a reasonable extrapolation of U. S. Capitalism), the political stuff is in more in the background, more of a plot driver than a major focus of discussion.  The author who seems most present as an influence on Cosmonaut Keep is Poul Anderson: there are several direct echoes of Andersonian themes, and one or two passages that seem almost stylistic hommages to Anderson.

Like all of MacLeod's books up to this point (except his first), it's told in two timelines.  After a mysterious prologue, which only makes sense at the end of the book, we are introduced to Gregor Cairns, a student on the planet Mingulay, and his fellow researchers Elizabeth Harkness and Salasso.  Salasso is a saur: an intelligent dinosaur-like being.  Elizabeth and Gregor are of different social classes: Elizabeth, it seems, is a "native", while Gregor is a descendant of the "cosmonauts", who arrived at Mingulay some centuries earlier from Earth, in a starship which is now unusable.  Soon another starship arrives: this one bearing human traders from Nova Babylonia, traders who in some ways resemble Anderson's Kith (and Heinlein's Traders from Citizen of the Galaxy, and Vinge's Qeng Ho), though their starship is actually controlled by aliens called Krakens, who naturally enough are huge beasts that live in water.  Details about this future interstellar civilization, called the "Second Sphere", are slow to be revealed, and I won't reveal much here, but they are neat and clever and intriguing details.  At any rate, Gregor soon meets a beautiful trader girl and falls in love: but all this is complicated by questions as to what the traders really want from the people of Mingulay, and what Gregor's family and fellow "cosmonauts" wish to do: the Great Work, and on a personal level, by Elizabeth's concealed love for Gregor.

The second timeline follows a Scotsman named Matt back in the middle of the 21st century.  He's a manager of programmers: the actual programmers are either AI's or aging geeks who remember legacy code like DOS and Unix. He's got a thing for an American named Jadey who is involved with the Resistance movement in England: and before long she's giving him a disk with some very interesting information on it.  At the same time, an announcement stuns the world: the (Communist) European Union has been contacted by aliens in an asteroid they've been studying.  Soon Jadey is under arrest, and Matt is fleeing to Area 51, then to the asteroid, where they learn that the information Jadey had Matt smuggle out is plans for a spaceship and a space drive.  All this is highly destabilizing to the world political situation, which teeters on the brink of chaos while the scientists on the asteroid try to talk to the aliens and build the spaceship.  It's easy to see where this is going, given that it has to mesh with the other story, but it's still clever and suspenseful.

This is a very good novel, one of the best I've read in 2000.  It's got a nice, well-contained story, involving mainly Gregor and Matt's personal lives mixed with the Great Work (for Gregor) and with Matt's obvious destiny. At the same time this story is clearly a setup for potentially fascinating future books in its series.  (The title page says this is Book One of Engines of Light.)  It's full of nifty SFnal ideas.  Behind the scenes, just barely hinted at, are some really scary implications, and some really well-done half-evocations of deep time.  (Such as: what has happened on Earth since the starship left for Mingulay?)  Much is just sketched in, especially about the multiple-alien interstellar society of the Second Sphere, which will be expanded on, I assume, in future books.  MacLeod's prose continues toimprove: he has a habit of mostly just writing sound, clever, workable stuff, then every so often winding up to an emotional and even quasi-poetic peak. The characters are decently drawn, though not especially deep, and there is a certain sense that their romantic lives are resolved rather conveniently. (Which isn't to say necessarily happily.)   Mostly, this is just good solid Science Fiction, with plenty of sense of wonder inducing ideas.

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