“Give me back the Berlin Wall”: Ken MacLeod’s The Sky Road

Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution books consist of The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division and The Sky Road. That’s the order they were published in originally in the UK, in the US they were published in the order The Cassini Division, The Stone Canal, The Star Fraction and The Sky Road. Tor have republished The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal in one trade paperback called Fractions, and I bet (without any inside information, just because it makes sense) that they’re fairly shortly going to do the other two in one volume called Divisions.

I really like these books. They’re a fully imagined future where the capitalist criticism of communism is entirely true, and so is the communist criticism of capitalism. They’re kind of libertarian (several of them won the Prometheus Award) and they’re grown up about politics in a way that most SF doesn’t even try. These aren’t fantasies of political agency, not at all. But they contain revolutions, political, technological and social, and they have an awareness of history that makes them standout. MacLeod has written more accomplished books since, but not more passionate ones.

Anyway, because of the publication order differences, it’s always possible, when two or three Ken MacLeod fans are gathered together, to get up an argument about reading order. The books are chronologically sequential in the original publication order. But it doesn’t really matter. You can make a pretty good argument for any order—except that everyone always agrees that you should read The Sky Road last. So, out of sheer perversity, I decided to re-read it alone, and to consider whether it works as a standalone novel.

Surprise: it does. You can start with The Sky Road. And it’s even a good idea.

The Sky Road and The Cassini Division are alternate futures to the stories in Fractions. And if you read The Sky Road in sequence, that’s a lot of what you’re going to be thinking about. Most of the conversations I’ve had about the book have been about that. But it’s a cracking good story in its own right. It has two storylines, alternating chapters throughout the book. One is the first person point of view of Clovis colha Gree, a student of history in a distant future, and the other is the third person point of view of Myra, a disillusioned and life-extended communist about a century from now. They are connected by revelation, and because Clovis is trying to write a biography of Myra, “The Deliverer.” You want to know how things got from A to B, and slowly, over the course of the book, you find out.

The thing I never really appreciated, reading it as the culmination of the series, is the way in which Clovis’s story is shaped like fantasy. The woman comes to him through the fair, she is beautiful and perilous, she is something more than she seems, and they fall in love and she takes him into a world of enchantment. Myra’s story is all end-game cynicism, while Clovis’s is, in complete contrast, almost idyllic. There’s also time, history, technology, boilerplate spaceships, computers that are half organic and half babbage engine, the background terraforming of Mars, and all the tortured compromises Myra has made along the way from the ideals she held in 1970s Glasgow. For this book, I really don’t think it matters who appeared in the earlier books. The story more than stands alone. The background of the earlier books just gives it more depth, more history. If you have that context, it hooks on for you, if not, I really don’t think it would matter. The alternate-ness certainly doesn’t matter, except in the way that missed opportunities are always cause for wistfulness. And I’m not sure I don’t like Clovis’s world better than Ellen May’s anyway.

MacLeod always plays fair with his ideologies. The text doesn’t take a position. He doesn’t extrapolate to meet his own prejudices—well, not more than people do just by being human. In the Clovis parts of The Sky Road, the greens and barbarians have won, but it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. Clovis follows the religion of Reason:

In the beginning, God made the Big Bang, and there was light. After the first four minutes, there was matter. After billions of years there were stars and planets and the Earth was formed. The water brought forth all manner of creeping things. Over millions of years they were shaped by God’s invisible hand, Natural Selection, into great monsters of land and sea.

The conclusion of someone who has lived from Myra’s time until Clovis’s is that the people of his day are more able to withstand the problems and temptations that destroyed the world once.

I think The Sky Road is my favourite of the quartet because I find both characters sympathetic.

I’m tempted now to re-read them all in reverse order and see how it goes, but I think I’ll restrain myself. And if you haven’t read them, you should by all means be sensible and start with Fractions, which is even in print.

Or if you have read them—what’s your preferred reading order, and why?


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