Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Ken MacLeod: The Execution Channel

Ken MacLeod's The Execution Channel is a near-future story from a recently diverged history. The science fiction is minimal, but sufficient to keep the book off the main-stream shelves. It's an adrenaline-pumping adventure/chase story that takes a distinct political stance against the recent growth of the security state.

The story follows government operatives and members of the counterculture in the aftermath of a series of apparent terror incidents in Britain. The first incident might be a nuclear explosion at a military base, but one of the main characters (participating in a peacenik stakeout at the base) saw and photographed delivery of a strange device before the explosion. She has a brother in the military who blogs about daily life, and her father works in intelligence. We follow them as various international government agencies track and connect them, and then decide what actions to take to contain them.

This novel has an unusual feel for MacLeod, since it is mostly conventional fiction in a near present setting. The divergent history is only present to argue that national politics doesn't make as big a difference to how events unfold as people think. I thought he pulled this part off well, making a surprising argument with only tiny effects on the story. The other SF aspect of the story is the effect behind the explosions; since a handful of the characters spend their waking hours spreading disinformation, the hints about the resolution are easy to discount on first reading.

Mostly MacLeod has found a good readable adventure story to wrap around a commentary on ubiquitous surveillance, government malfeasance, torture, and current events. The story is quite readable, and the themes will resonate for libertarians and other anti-authoritarians and privacy zealots. I think it's a good candidate to win the Prometheus award this year.

Peter McCluskey had a different reaction to the book.


Anonymous said...

So how does one read all of McCluskey's review? I clicked on your link, and it took me to a page that has the opening sentences—and I can't find any place to click to see the rest.

Personally, I like McLeod's style, quite a lot; he's one of the writers whose books I have to put down every so often as I read them, because the pleasure of his prose is getting too intense and needs to be savored in quiet.

Chris Hibbert said...

"So how does one read all of McCluskey's review?" The whole thing showed up in my feed reader. When I looked for the permalink to post here, I noticed that it was truncated and sent him a note. He hasn't responded.

It's not that long; I'll copy it here:

"Unlike the typical MacLeod novel, it is set in a society too similar to ours to stretch our imaginations much, and sufficiently less pleasant to be somewhat depressing.
Much of the book is commentary on the current “war on terror”. I agree with a lot of that commentary, but only a few aspects of the commentary have much value.
The most important way in which this novel stands out is that it portrays most characters as people who expect to be the kind of leaders that conspiracy theorists imagine the world to be run by, but regularly end up as more realistic people whose battle plans don’t survive contact with the apparent enemy. And there’s a good deal of realistic “fog of war” type uncertainty over who the enemy is.
MacLeod deserves a good deal of credit for avoiding a number of biases that make typical novels popular but unrealistic, such as making the protagonists better than human. Unfortunately, the results confirm that this kind of realism interferes with the enjoyability of novels."

Anonymous said...

Thanks! I think the best response is to say that tastes differ. I found the wildly sfnal ending a bit jarring, after getting immersed in the hard realism of the earlier story, which I liked—both as a cautionary tale, and because I like, for example, the morally compromised characters of John Le Carre's better novels rather better than the usual action/adventure heroes.