Thu
Jan 29 2009 6:42pm
“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?

14 comments
Arthur D. Hlavaty
1. supergee
I actually did start with The Sky Road, and it's still my favorite.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Supergee: Terrific. Then they really do work in any order. It's hard to think of anything else that does.
Tomasz Galazka
3. tetrix
Sadly, with me it was different - I read them in the UK publishing order, and while I was bowled over with The Star Fraction (Trotskyists in space?! Where does one sign up?) and The Stone Canal, the latter two were a bit of a chore..., no, that would be a major exaggeration. They simply did not feel so fresh, so exuberant to me. Still, that's one of a very few sequences I've read in its entirety, it was so good.
Futuresoon Sterling
4. Futuresoon Sterling
I first came across Ken Macleod in the Ucluelet Co-Op grocery store.

There it was, the Cassini Division, glaring out at me from the rumbled rotating book-stand, lost among the Grisham's and Cusslers and paperback romances.

I'd been raised on Niven and Asimov and Pournelle, but Cassini rocked my understanding of sci-fi. It was more influential in my choice of sci-fi and my own attempts at writing than Snow Crash or the Difference Engine.

I found the Sky Road and the Stone Canal when I made it to the University of Victoria, and only found the Star Fraction after a year and a half of stalking used bookstores.

What I love about these books is that they aren't directly linked, but play off a central timeframe of kids in university. The Fall Revolution series reads like four alternative histories than a single arc.

The books of Ken Macleod lead me on to the great works of anarchism, socialism and capitalism.

And, I think, may have lead me to becoming a science journalist. But I'll leave that to another time.
David Goldfarb
5. David_Goldfarb
I don't think it's quite true that they work in any order: I read The Cassini Division first because that's what was published first in the US, and when I came to The Stone Canal I wished I hadn't. I really think The Stone Canal should be read before The Cassini Division. The other two could be read in different orders, yes.
Futuresoon Sterling
6. Amend Locke
Thanks, Jo!

Futuresoon Sterling - I love the idea of someone finding The Cassini Division in a co-op store paperback rack. It's so wonderfully ... recursive.
David Dyer-Bennet
7. dd-b
I believe I read The Cassini Division first, and liked it a lot; none of the rest ever really came up to that. But then things like a tacked-on fourth book that's an alternate history to what I've already read is not the sort of thing I'm interested in coping with.
Dominic Wellington
8. riotnrrd
I also started with Sky Road, picking it up at random when I found myself short of reading material in London. I found that it definitely stood alone, but I am slowly working my way through the rest of the books, so I can't say yet which is my favourite.
Martin Wisse
9. Martin_Wisse
It was your review of The sky Road that first introduced me to Ken MacLeod's novels way back when on rec.arts.sf.written. Your enthusiasm made me buy all his novels that had been out to that point and I'm not sure I read The Sky Road first or The Star fraction but I know I loved them all.

And like Futuresoon Sterling, MacLeod was one of the people who pulled me in the direction of socialism.
Futuresoon Sterling
10. phuzz
I too started with the Cassini Division, based I think solely on the cover seeming interesting and it really blew me away, I can't remember what order I read the other books in except that I think I finished with the Sky Road, and I always spent far too long trying to work out how the four books inter-related. For me The Star Fraction always felt like the first book (partly due to it's style,and partly because the cover on mine is slightly cheaper than the other three).
Of all his books though it was The Execution Channel with it's (to me incredibly moving and) shocking opening, together with it's playful ending (didn't see that coming, really should have) that I think sticks in my mind the most, but the politics of the early novels probably shaped me most when I was of an age to be impressionable.
B. Ross Ashley
11. brashley46
I picked up The Casssini Division in the Toronto Public Library about 10 years ago, and devoured it with delight; I read the rest as I came across them. Unlike some of you I have been a socialist and indeed a Trotskyist (although of a different stripe than Cde. MacLeod) for most of the last 40 years, so it didn't convert me, but it certainly is a rollicking good read. In any order.
Futuresoon Sterling
12. babydog
I may have started w/ Sky Road; remember it fondly. Didn't make it through Star Fraction. I think MacLeod is relieved that Bush/Cheney terrified Europeans of America as much as he himself has been for a long time. With Bush gone, MacLeod will again be at one end of the bell curve. Liked Newton's Wake. Execution Channel could have been fantastic. Instead MacLeod missed the whole point of his own tagline "The war on terror is over; terror won". The torture and murder of a British serviceman on British soil in a secret prison is treated as an afterthought to MacLeod's burning desire to a) insert marxism/communism into his story someway/somehow even if it don't fit, b)glorify anti-Americanism (again), and c) justify the treason of the one Brit character against the British government. It's interesting that both both MacLeod and a red-state American he must dislike so much share a fear of his own government and of each other.
Futuresoon Sterling
13. David Southwell
More than one of my own published non-fiction books has acknowledged the debt of pleasure and inspiration I owe to Ken MacLeod as a reader.

At many levels, The Sky Road is my favourite of The Fall books. Passionate, burning with optimism, funny and wonderfully realised in terms of character, setting and plot.

I have just finished an umpteenth re-reading of it and I am now going on to re-read the other three in the set in reverse order.
Futuresoon Sterling
14. Roderick T. Long
Given that Cassini Division follows in direct linear succession on Stone Canal and makes multiple references back to it, I think the strongest case for a chronological ordering concerns those two books. The other books are more complexly related in chronology so there's more of an argument for other sequences.

In general I think the publication order is best -- unless one is trying to sell someone on the series, in which case I would give them Stone Canal first.

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