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Dark Light
Ken MacLeod
Tor hardcover $25.95 / Orbit £16.99

review by Jeremy Smith

British science fiction has always stood apart from the American brand. Writing as the sun set on their empire, the earliest masters of the scientific romance and the dreadful warning - men like H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapleton, and Aldous Huxley - published novels of philosophical as well as scientific speculation, often imbued with a deep fatalism. Later, as mid-century US space opera optimistically and uncritically surged across the galaxy, British writers like J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock contemplated global disaster, urban decadence, and psychological inner space.
   At first glance, Scottish science fiction writer Ken MacLeod seems to have nothing at all to do with this now-venerable tradition. Like William Gibson or Orson Scott Card on this side of the Atlantic, MacLeod's post-cyberpunk novels are fast, furious, and infused by an early adopter fascination with new hardware and software. Yet his tightly plotted adventures are also punctuated with passionate political and philosophical debates that self-consciously draw on hundreds of years of European history.
   By successfully synthesising American-style space opera with European doubt and sophistication, MacLeod has invented a new style of science fiction. If Karl Marx had become an anarchist and then written techno-thrillers instead of Das Kapital, then he might have written like MacLeod. His first series of four books, known collectively as the Fall Revolution, explored the limits and promises of freedom, imagining that nanotechnology and genetic engineering will catalyse dynamic, anarchistic human societies. The books won him wide acclaim in the 1990s, including the British Science Fiction Association Award, Hugo and Nebula nominations, and write-ups in relatively mainstream venues like Salon.com    MacLeod's new story cycle - The Engines Of Light - began with Cosmonaut Keep, and continues with Dark Light. Cosmonaut Keep tells the familiar near-future story of first contact with an alien intelligence that exists like bacteria at the centre of asteroids and comets. Known simply as 'the gods,' they bequeath to humankind the secret to faster-than-light travel, taking one group of cosmonauts to the distant planet of Mingulay in a region of space called the Second Sphere. There, the cosmonauts find humans from other eras of Earth's history, along with intelligent giant squids and civilised humanoid dinosaurs. All these species, it seems, were relocated from Earth over many millennia by the gods. Why? This is the question pursued throughout the Engines Of Light series.
   Dark Light takes place 200 subjective years after the events of Cosmonaut Keep, as the cosmonaut-descended families of Mingulay re-discover the secret of interstellar travel and fly to Croatan, five light years away. There they are hardly welcome. After the local Port Authority impounds their ship, the Bright Star, the Mingulayans find allies among the planet's anarchist radicals and the 'heathen,' people kidnapped from Earth during the Stone Age who have retained their traditional culture. In the struggle to recover their ship, the Mingulayan crew catalyses a social revolution. They also discover that the forced relocation and evolutionary advancement of Earth species in the Second Sphere is part of some vast cosmic conflict yet to be understood.
   Dark Light reveals MacLeod as a more mature writer even as it shows the limits of his imagination. MacLeod's characterisation and writing improved steadily over the course of the Fall Revolution novels, and Dark Light continues that trajectory. The heathen character Stone, a biological man who chooses to live as a woman, is a more complex and beautifully written personality than any found in the Fall Revolution, and the evocations of Stone's society are sensitive and thoroughly imagined. All the Earth-descended societies of the Second Sphere are vividly described, giving Cosmonaut Keep and Dark Light a texture that MacLeod only began to achieve in the last book of the Fall Revolution cycle, The Sky Road.
   Unlike conventional literary fiction, however, science fiction does not succeed purely on the basis of good writing and characterisation � areas where MacLeod falls short even despite his evident growth. Famed editor Gardner Dozois once remarked that science fiction uses the car and the movie to predict the drive-in. MacLeod's earlier books had interesting things to say about our relationship with machines, especially regarding the power and freedom that our machines give to us. The Engines Of Light novels, on the other hand, have not yet managed to invent a drive-in; offering only recycled Promethean tales of first contact and scientific discovery without breaking new ground in the science fiction genre. Much of the material � from ancient alien progenitors that guide human history to the grey-domed, saucer-flying Saurs � has been explored already in many narratives, including The X-Files, David Brin's Uplift cycle, and recent novels like Scott Mackay's Orbis. Even the frenetic political debates of Engines Of Light feel warmed over from the Fall Revolution.
   MacLeod started out promisingly and remains compulsively readable, but one senses complacency in Dark Light. While there is nothing wrong with entertaining readers, MacLeod has already proven himself capable of much more. If he doesn't slow down long enough to imagine another drive-in, then MacLeod may cease to matter as a science fiction writer.

Related items:
tZ - interview with author, Ken MacLeod
tZ - The Human Front - book review

Dark Light by Ken MacLeod
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