Monday, June 28, 2010

Newton's Wake: A Space Opera

by Ken Macleod

A very interesting backdrop, great pace in working out politics, and has one of the most complex and exciting openings for SF I've read in the past year. Unfortunately the wider story doesn't live up to the promise of the first thirty pages, and in the end while I was left with a lot of indications of Macleod as a major author this didn't feel like a major work to the canon. The fatal issue was the book being a bit too self-knowing, and the final few twists of the plot threw me pretty thoroughly. This problem is balanced to an extent by how funny the novel is, both on the level of depicted conversation an the meta-sense of playing with common tropes. To an extent the same factors that weaken the ultimate credibility of the work also make it an enormous amount of fun, at least for someone familiar in the major literature of SF. There’s lots of amusing stuff in here, in particular the play of Soviet decline, and a wide sprinkling of interesting ideas. On the whole it didn't come enough to rise to the status of great, though it's still easily a very good novel. All things considered I preferred Macleod’s Learning the World, and also reading this book after the Banks reread I found the Culture author a much better writer overall.

Part of what Macleod is most effective at is in subverting expectations. Particularly those on longtime genre readers, taking formulas they expect from the format of their science fiction narratives and turning them on their head, and in the process making a compelling narrative. In this case, it’s all about the format of interstellar conflict, and showing the galactic intrigue to be a lot more dynamic and multi-faceted than one would presume. It’s about fitting the story of conflict into a larger pattern of economics, it’s about the pressures in society and the factionalization that occurs to all sides. Macleod takes the premise of technological change seriously with a flair for entertainment seen in few authors. Much of space opera has the sylistic codings of more traditional adventure narratives, being the type of thing that with only a few substititons could work in a fantasy or historical scenario. Macleod constructs his world with enough care that the story could only play out as is in such an envioronment, and does this while also frustrating and improving upon the stock expectationjs.

The other thing he does quite well is centering the business of politics at the science fiction story. It’s not politics in the form of heroic defiance to the state and overturning the evil monolithic opposition, instead it’s the business of rule as made by diverse and flawed individuals on all sides. The challenge lies as much in getting the proper information and having an effective perspective as in posessing the proper ethical principles, and the layout this approach gives to the story of material resources and physical conflict is a vigor to see.

This story is one that grew on me a lot in reflection, and with a bit of distance from it. There are still some wholes and weak patches around the later work, but overall it’s a compelling narrative wrapped in some very thoughtful reflections that confirm Macleod as one of the major genre writers.

Better than: Matter by Iain M. Banks
Worse than: Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

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