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review by Duncan Lawie
Cosmonaut Keep is the first part of the Engines of Light trilogy and a new beginning for Ken MacLeod. In the first chapter it looks like a massive departure. This is set on Mingulay, a planet on the edge of the Second Sphere, one hundred light years from Nova Sol. The humans of the Second Sphere are co-incidental occupants of a multi-planetary society. Having been collected from Earth by barely explained means over the course of millennia, they are far down the pecking order in a slow moving, largely stable society. Being mostly from pre-scientific, pre-capitalist periods of human history, they do not have the tools to understand - or affect - the aliens amongst whom they live. Yet the most recent influx from Earth arrived in a spaceship of their own. Two centuries have passed since then - long enough for the lightspeed limited ships of the Teuthys to have made a round trip to Nova Sol. These squid like star travellers don't communicate directly with humans, yet their ships carry 'lesser' species - close mouthed, reptilian saurs as well as humans. Whatever the ineffable (or at least unexplained) purpose of the Teuthys, their passengers are traders and most interested in the changes since their last visit. The story which develops centres on the choices of a descendent of the human-crewed ship and his colleagues in the local university, itself a result of the newest ideas from Earth.
The book has a similar construction to that of The Stone Canal, with the chapters set on distant Mingulay alternating with ones set in more familiar territory. Still, MacLeod has put aside the Fall Revolution of his first four novels to generate a new set of twists and turns for the next 50 years. On Earth, the European Union is controlled by a resurgent, Russian-based Communist Party. Whilst this might seem unlikely, the politics of paranoia and the divisions between Europe and the USA look all too reasonable, as do the divisions between old and new money within America. Early parts of the book are peppered with references to Microsoft, Linux, Slashdot and other techno-geek material until the plot builds sufficient momentum to carry itself. This is a first person narration by Matt Cairns of what happens when he is handed plans for an exotic craft. There is a good line in intrigue regarding the source of that data and what Cairns can - or should - do with the information. The origin of the information is enough to affect the stability of Europe - perhaps the whole world.
It is possible that this is a transitional novel for this author. The parts set in 2049 meet our expectations of a book by MacLeod - sharp, political and typically (post-)cyberpunk; the remainder enters the picaresque and sense of wonder territory of E.E. 'Doc' Smith and his heirs. The interchange of style between chapters is a little disturbing though the two sides of the story eventually inform each other. Along the way, MacLeod mines ideas from our history of beliefs about UFOs, space and manifest destiny without belabouring any of the points - and without irony. The book makes no attempt to be self-contained. By the end, the picture of the Second Sphere is sufficient, but it is a portrait without an explanation; humanity's place in it seems to be totally coincidental. According to the old tropes of science fiction, the humans from the 21st century will spend the remaining parts transforming and improving the whole Second Sphere - why else would they be there? This sets up a dynamic tension with the more cynical, world weary style also present within the book, which suggest that humanity isn't even capable of improving itself. Cosmonaut Keep is an entertaining foray into both near and distant futures, forming a solid foundation for the revelations and resolution the remaining two volumes must hold.
tZ - interview with author, Ken MacLeod
tZ - Dark Light - book review
tZ - The Human Front - book review
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