No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, February 19, 2009

#08: Newton's Wake -- Ken MacLeod

"Information wants to be free."
"Yeah," said Lucinda bitterly. "That's how we got into this whole fucking mess."
(p. 334)

I didn't really engage with this novel, but I think that's as much me as the book: I increasingly struggle to maintain interest in SF novels, be they never so witty and wonderful and wise.

Post-Singularity -- the Hard Rapture -- AIs and assimilated persons have progressed to posthumanity, and have departed this reality for points unknown, leaving behind a smattering of mystic artefacts. Humanity, pretty much driven off Earth by war machines, is colonising the galaxy via FTL and wormhole travel. There are three main bodies or clans: America Offline, the Knights of Enlightenment and Demokratische Kommunistbund, plus smaller organisations such as the Carlyles, a Scottish family who've prospered by controlling the 'skein' of wormholes.

The protagonist of Newton's Wake is Lucinda Carlyle, whose combat archaeology expedition to Eurydice uncovers a whole lot more than she expected: an isolated colony who've believed themselves the sole bastion of humanity, an artefact greater and more dangerous than anything she's encountered before, and a whole new set of wormholes. Plus, the slave intelligence controlling her environmental suit ("Professor Isaac Shlaim, Tel Aviv University, Department of Computer Science, deceased") has just achieved independence and surrendered itself to the Eurydiceans.

Weaving through the novel is discussion (by example) of what it means to be human. People are accustomed to taking backups before risky operations, and 'restoring' themselves if they die: Lucinda's quite proud, at one point, of never having died. There are two folk-singers from our near future, entombed in a peat bog at the moment of the Hard Rapture and resurrected; there's an ongoing thread about the possibility of reunion with their significant others, who may or may not have existed. There's a man whose closest relationship is with the AI in his spaceship, the Hungry Dragon. There's a wetware switch to reconfigure sexuality, with the net result that a gay man turned straight has sudden difficulties when describing garments: on the other hand, he might just be playing a joke on Lucinda.

There are some marvellous passages in the novel, and some fascinating characters: there's a real sense of fun about some of the more outré creations, such as playwright Ben-Ami's The Tragedy of Leonid Brezhnev, Prince of Muscovy:

ANDROPOV: The sledded Polacks grumble in their yards.
They hearken to, on short-wave radio
that turbulent priest, Pope Wojtyla,
and bide their time. The Bulgars hard
oppress their Turks. The Czechs
bounce currency abroad and Semtex too ...
GORBACHEV: .. Let's give our people what they want, which means
fast food, cheap television, cars, and Levi jeans.
(p.125-6)

I don't know if I read the novel too bittily, or too slowly, or just without sufficient engagement: there's a lot happening in it, and I found it disjointed. MacLeod's prose is always readable and frequently very funny, and he has an eye for the absurd: wide marble steps balustraded with cosmonaut caryatids and banisted with a marble sweep of stylised contrail ending in the upward swoops of chrome-plated rockets (p. 41). I'm reminded that I enjoy his writing, but I don't think this is anywhere near his best book.

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