Our Science Fiction Reviewer in house, Duncan Lawie has sent a review of Ken MacLeod's The Star Fraction. One more interesting point to this review - Duncan sent it from vacation, offshore of Antarctica - off of Cape Royds on Ross Island. That's about 77 degrees south, for the geographers in the crowd. It's a near future setting - 21st century dealing with politics. Click below to read more.
Ken MacLeod's vision of the 21st century - and beyond - is highly politicized. He has won two Prometheus awards for libertarian science fiction despite his positive appraisal of much of the Left in his writing. His four published novels involve a society very different politically from our own. His work has fanned out from his first novel, The Star Fraction to offer alternative viewpoints - often sympathetic but possibly contradictory - on where humanity could be heading. The breadth and cross-pollination between the books gives each a greater depth, regardless of the order in which they are read.
The Star Fraction opens around the middle of the 21st century. Britain has been fractured by turbulence at home and abroad. Division on every issue and the failure of central government has left independents of every stripe in enclaves throughout the country, from London to the Scottish Highlands. Many of these have a broad sympathy for the former Socialist government and the attitudes of the Left but are involved in feuds at the expense of the dream of a re-united Republican Britain. A Royalist government retains power over the rump of the country, but their power is further limited by the U.S./UN. The U.S./UN itself maintains global power through space based weaponry and control of new technology which has paralyzed the development of biotechnology and artificial intelligence.
The primary underlying "science" of this science fiction is politics. The interference patterns created by such a thought experiment are the very lives and livelihoods of the people in the book. Characters include a communist mercenary who works for a collective protecting (capitalist) property, a university researcher and a programmer/stockbroker from a Christian fundamentalist group. These people are powerfully realised. They care deeply about the society they live in and their political beliefs are a deep and genuine expression of their concern. The process of exploring politics through character makes the factional complexity of ideology more accessible. It also results in a visceral experience rather than a novel of ideas.
The speculative elements of The Star Fraction are in no way limited to politics. Space is a place where people go to work. This is significant, both for the influence that this all-seeing perspective offers the major powers and for the increasing freedom from Earth of those above. On the ground, the Green movement is seen to be deeply affected by global warming - what can they do when the environment is so clearly falling apart and it seems that still too few respect Gaia? There is also machine consciousness which works its way towards full artificial intelligence. The centre of this novel has much to say about artificial intelligence and its possible relationships with humanity. The idea of a life form springing from the silicon is opposed by those - both ignorant and computer literate - who fear the potential power of AI.
In the final third of the book the plot languishes somewhat as the populus works to reach a future bright with possibility. This final outcome remains open to re-interpretation and revelation. This novel brims with political pizzazz, wry humor and unusual insight. The struggle of the masses is brought to life in a manner which matches its fervency for a better world with brilliant action and convincing description.
It's only availible overseas, however.