Newton’s Wake, by Ken Macleod
Ken Macleod is one of Britain’s leading science fiction writers. He has written two well received SF trilogies (arguably one was a tetratology), and at his best writes tales that combine the sweep of centuries and galaxies with the minutiae of human politics and desire. When he’s good, he’s very, very good.
Macleod is often an ambitious writer, one who thinks nothing of showing how a political argument among friends back in the 1970s can have effects that echo down the years, ultimately shaping the entire future history of the human race. His most recent novel that I’ve read, The Execution Channel from 2007, contained a plot twist that infuriated some readers while delighting others and had interesting things to say about the temptations of power and the illusions of manifest destiny. I was among the infuriated, but for all that The Execution Channel took risks, and I respect that.
After completing the second of those two trilogies I mentioned, Macleod wrote a couple of lighter novels. Newton’s Wake and Learning the World. I read Learning the World a couple of years back now, an enjoyable but ultimately lightweight first contact novel. Newton’s Wake is in a similar vein, it’s Macleod taking a bit of a rest from grand epics, and instead writing straightforwardly fun SF, here not a first contact novel but an old style space opera updated for modern SF concepts of transhumanism and the singularity (the rapture for nerds, as Macleod once memorably called it).
Incidentally, if you don’t know what the singularity is but would like to, I’ll be happy to talk about that in the comments. I figure most people reading though either already know or don’t remotely care.
Newton’s Wake posits a future in which humanity is spread across the stars, a diasporic remnant that survived a singularity event in which war machines – AI supersystems – took over the Earth and absorbed most of humanity in the process, perhaps uploading them (and perhaps just killing them). Humanity has faster than light spaceships, ftl being rather cleverly referred to as fittling, and there is also the skein – a network of gates that link world to world, and which are controlled by the descendants of a Glasgow criminal gang.
As the novel opens, Lucinda Carlyle, a member of that gang, leads a team through the skein to an unexplored world where she discovers a human colony long cut off from the interstellar community and where she inadvertently reactivates some ancient war machines. That leads to a steadily widening conflict, as the major powers compete for access to the new colony that enjoys technology lost to most human civilisations and for access to what appear to be war machine artefacts of unusual value.
As soon as she stepped through the gate Lucinda Carlyle knew the planet had been taken, and knew it would be worth taking back. It bore all the thumbprints of hurried terraforming: blueish grass and moss, low shrubbery like heather. No animal life was visible, but she had no doubt it was there. Five kilometres away across an otherwise barren moor dotted with outcrops and bogs a kilometre-high diamond machine speared the sky. Complex in aspect, somewhere between a basaltic cliff and a cathedral, it had shown up on the robot probe, but that was nothing compared to actually looking at it.
She turned away from it and looked back at the gate. It was marked by a hilltop henge, whether by the gate’s builders or by subsequent, less sophisticated minds she couldn’t guess: two three-metre slabs upended, and topped by a third. One by one her team stepped forth from the unlikely shimmer and gazed around at the landscape. A yellow G5 sun blinked a bleary, watery morning eye over the horizon.
Which is all kind of fun. The trouble is, it’s also all a bit silly. Macleod has always had a penchant for puns in his books, little in-jokes and references. That’s fair enough, but in this book it gets a bit out of hand. The three major factions in space are America Offline, the Knights of Enlightenment and the DK. All three are enormously cliched, America Offline (an entire faction for a not-so-great pun) are brash American evangelical types, farmers who when abroad splash their cash around as grating and arrogant tourists. The Knights of Enlightenment are Japanese Zen-warriors. The DK are communist North Koreans in space, practising Juche – self reliance – and inventing radical new technologies through communist innovation. Alongside all three are the Caryles, the Glasgow criminal family that now control the skein and so the easiest method of interstellar travel.
None of these are remotely persuasive as actual societies. That’s ok to the extent the novel isn’t meant to be taken seriously, but to the extent it is it gets in the way, and frankly at times I found it simply jarring. Brash Americans who don’t get it? How original. Seemingly inscrutable Orientals with a fixation on gardening, meditation and martial arts? Surely I’ve not seen that before.
Also problematic is the Carlyles’ dialogue. Generally, the novel is written in ordinary British English. Sometimes however, to reflect the fact the Carlyles speak in a thick Glasgow accent, their speech is partly written as spoken, with wudnae’s and so on. It’s not always done, which makes it jarring when it is, and to be honest when the whole novel isn’t written that way it often felt a bit artificial. It’s not nearly as bad as the excesses of Poul Anderson’s Celtic characters, often so overdone in their Scottishisms as to render the book unreadable, but it doesn’t quite work either.
Here, two characters have just seen a spaceship explode, though it’s not yet clear to which faction the spaceship belonged.
‘Poor bastards.’ Armand shook his head. ‘But they’ll all have had backups, no?’
They had started walking down the hill.
‘If they’re frae our firm,’ said Carlyle, ‘ no if they’re Knights.’
‘Don’t they have the tech?’
‘Oh, sure. They just don’t use it.’
‘Good heavens,’ said Armand. ‘Why not?’
Carlyle shrugged, picking her way over tussocks. ‘It’s a physics thing. They believe we’re all coming back.’
‘Reincarnation?’ Armand sounded scornful.
‘Hell, no,’ Carlyle said. ‘Cyclic cosmos.’
Armand guffawed. ‘Cold comfort.’
She paused to let him catch up, and gave him an offended frown. ‘It’s true,’ she said. ‘It’s no a religion or anything. They proved it. We’re living forever the now. This is it. Eternity.’ She remembered an ancient recording of a woman singing: It all comes back in time. I certainly intend to.
‘So why do you take back-ups?’ Armand asked, ‘if you believe that?’
She thought about it. ‘It saves time.’
Anyway, unconvincing factions, clunky dialogue, I imagine it sounds terrible. But that’s not the whole story. This isn’t a serious outing, it’s not meant to be subjected to heavy analysis, instead this is a case of putting on a seatbelt and going along for the ride. That ride includes a writer whose theatrical triumphs include deeply ahistorical operas based on the life of Brezhnev, resurrected folk-singers with prosthetic personalities, a crane operator whose head has been replaced by a nanotech duplicate of the original, beam weapons based on superstring technology and a clever use of the hoary SF trope of the ancients or progenitor races which here are our own creations passed so far beyond us that it’s postulated they maintain causality in the presence of FTL travel (real world physics is pretty clear that FTL without causality violation is impossible, put simply any technology capable of travelling faster than light is necessarily also capable of time travel. No, I don’t understand the maths involved).
There’s a lot of jokes here, varying in quality. The American faction worship Jesus Koresh, which didn’t work for me, Lovecraft references were also just a bit too geeky even for me (and I love Lovecraft), some of the computer jokes were a bit stretched. To be fair though, I don’t like puns, so I’m probably a harsh audience for that material. On the other hand, I loved the twist that the folk musicians brought back from the dead are famous as being legendary lovers, but turn out in fact to be two heterosexual men who didn’t get along all that well, time and popular memory having transformed them into something much more romantic than their messy reality. Equally, there’s a very subtle joke based on Gosse’s nineteenth century arguments about Adam’s navel that I thought very elegant.
Macleod visits a lot of his core themes here, the singularity, competing visions of how to best organise a society, successful communist cultures, extropianism, rights of digital intelligences, infinite universes, in a way the novel is a primer to Macleod’s wider body of work. It’s one for the fans though, a slightly indulgent romp through those themes, rather than a serious exploration of them. It’s fun, and if you like puns it’s probably a lot more fun than I found it, but it’s not his best work and I note that his more recent novels are once again seeking to push the boundaries of the genre in a way that this flatly isn’t. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think it will stick with me in the way some of his other novels, even those I didn’t like, will.