Newton's Wake - Ken MacLeod

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Newton's Wake
A Space Opera
Ken MacLeod
ISBN: 1841491756 (Amazon link)

I have to admit to approaching Newton's Wake with caution. Although I really liked MacLeod's first three novels, The Sky Fraction, The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division, I didn't enjoy The Sky Road as much. The problems really started with Cosmonaut Keep though, I barely made it through it, then bounced off Dark Light completely. Engine City has been staring at me accusingly for some time now, wondering why I didn't even try to read it. I can't really put my finger on why I bounced off these later novels, certainly all the trademark things I enjoy about MacLeod's writing were there. Who knows? Maybe a re-read will be a totally different experience.

Anyway, I picked up Newton's Wake hoping that the different setting would work better for me. Better yet, Newton's Wake is a standalone, something becoming all too rare for space operas. And this is definitely a space opera, it says so on the title page, as a subtitle, "Newton's Wake: A Space Opera". (Straining the anology, the chapters are even arranged into Side One and Side Two.)

Interestingly, Newton's Wake is dedicated to Mr & Mrs Charlie Stross, author of Singularity Sky, and it's not implausible that there is some cross-pollination going on between these two authors. Certainly there are some throwaway lines involving cornucopia machines etc which indicate an appreciation for the sort of shared post-Singularity themes addressed by both of them. However, the single biggest thing I noticed is that Newton's Wake is funny... not overtly, and there are no flamboyant set-pieces as featured in Singularity Sky, but Newton's Wake has a gently good-humoured undercurrent which I liked.

The book opens with a familiar enough archaeological first contact - Lucinda Carlyle leads her "combat archaeologists" through a worm-hole gate into a recently, and illegally, terraformed world. They are to investigate a gigantic diamond mountain housing mysterious machines. However, MacLeod isn't one to settle for conventional approaches. His Carlyles aren't professional soldiers or dedicated, noble scientists, the gate isn't their advanced technology, and the illegality of the terraforming isn't going to be discussed in diplomatic meetings.

Nope, refreshingly the Carlyles are the descendants of a Glasgow gang, phonetic accents and all, and now they have assumed control of the pre-existing wormhole skein behind the gates. Basically, if you want to use the wormhole network, you got to pay the Carlyles their cut. Of course, you could FTL the long way around if you really objected to paying, but really, the Carlyles have managed to seize a vital resource. The terraformers Lucinda is worrying about aren't thinly rebranded versions of current geo-political blocks either, she is instead thinking the planet's population is one of: America Offline, Amish style low tech redneck farmers, or perhaps the Knights of Enlightenment, a highly organised and militarised society descended from a far eastern population, or even the communist DK - the Carlyles aren't too sure what the DK actually stands for.

Obviously this is a peculiar future, and MacLeod wastes no time kicking the plot off. The Carlyles approach the diamond artefact with their usual, er, blunt diplomacy, which is quick to draw a response from the machines inside, but also from the natives. Turns out that this is Eurydice, that those are feared alien? war machines, until now quiescent, and that the Eurydiceans have never heard of the Carlyles. Now is not the best time for Lucinda's suit AI, an uploaded human, to fling himself upon the mercy of the natives, begging for freedom from his servile state.

Lucinda, now deprived of her troops and the gate following a short battle, has to explain her side of the story, and why she has an enslaved post-human, to the hostile Eurydiceans, and, neatly, to us. In this timeline, a EUR/US war led to a Singularity, in which many humans on both sides were uploaded in the Hard Rapture. Many many more simply vanished. The Carlyles came to power from the remnants of the Earth's population, but the Eurydiceans are a remnant population of the disappeared. Until the gate opened, they had thought themselves the sole survivors, and were unaware the rest of humanity was still in existence, FTLing around merrily not too far away. However, they're still not keen on the whole enslavement of post-humans...

Mayhem now erupts on several fronts. The incorporation of the Eurydiceans into the wider political world doesn't go smoothly, and on a more personal level, there's a hilarious plot thread involving a very precious theatre producer deciding that he'll open his new play with real, resurrected historical figures; two folk singers who have come to represent those lost in the Hard Rapture. Funnily enough, the duo don't feel the same way about their new life, but no matter, as the prior hits of the producer, particularly a completely bizarre interpretation of Brezhnev's life, are going down a storm in the communist DK. More mayhem ensues (possibly to distract thicker readers like meself from points being made about the effect of popular culture on political movements).

Meanwhile, by losing them clout, Lucinda has been disgraced in the eyes of her clan, and in one of the more sombre plot threads embarks on a daring suicide mission to obtain some useful alien tech which will let the Carlyles regain the advantage when it comes to leveraging the diamond mountain on Eurydice... Suicide hasn't quite lost its sting despite backups and resurrection tech, and this deftly handled plot thread gives MacLeod a chance to segue his folk singers thread into a discussion about the past dealing with similar themes of identity and personality. Seems there is a deep political divide when it comes to dealing with the consequences of the Hard Rapture and the treatment of post-humans. Worse, the two folk singers find themselves used as icons in this debate between the Runners and the Returners. Politics? In a MacLeod novel? Surely not.

I loved about 3/4 of this novel, folk singers and all, but have to admit that the end threw me utterly. The plot seemed suddenly to run out of control, and while I managed to retain the gist of events, I can't help but feel that the ending was confused. In the end I very much think I'll need a re-read to decide... but I don't really care. It was the small hours of the morning before I closed this book, which is probably the highest praise I can give a novel. I could babble on for a bit about how well written it is, how inventive, but really, all you need to know is that this is probably the best books MacLeod has written in years.

Overall? Highly recommended. Puts the Opera back into Space Opera.

Posted: Sat - April 10, 2004 at 09:54 PM