Tue
Nov 27 2012 1:00pm
eDiscover... Newton’s Wake by Ken MacLeod

eDiscover is a new series on Tor.com that highlights sci-fi/fantasy titles recently brought back into print as ebooks.

An appreciation of Newton’s Wake by Ken MacLeod, recently re-released as an ebookKen MacLeod is an author I’ve always wanted to get to know better. I’m a big fan of his SF-tinged thriller The Execution Channel, and the excellent “first contact” novel Learning the World, but I’ve never been able to clear the decks to read more of his hard science fiction. One of these days I’ll take a vacation and pack the “Fall Revolution” quartet with me—I’ve been told that it’s likely to mesh well with my well-established fandom for fellow Edinburgher Charles Stross—but in the meantime, the standalone space opera Newton’s Wake has been a great way for me to get back into a MacLeod groove.

It’s the late 24th century, and Lucinda Carlyle is a junior member in a family that “started off as scrap merchants, drug dealers and loan sharks” but has become one of the four major power blocs among the segment of Earth’s former population that survived the “Hard Rapture”—a war against military supercomputers that gained intelligence and forcibly uploaded huge swathes of human consciousness. The Carlyles happen to control the network of wormholes that facilitate travel between planets, and they’re not the least bit shy about using that clout. Lucinda’s looking to prove herself on a combat archaeology mission, scoping out an uncharted world for evidence of posthuman technology, but that assignment goes disastrously wrong: Not only does she accidentally reawaken a massive war machine, she also stumbles upon Eurydice, a civilization founded by a stray band of Earth refugees that’s had no idea anyone else made it out alive.

Eurydice’s post-scarcity society quickly pushes its way forward in the novel, making as prominent a claim for our attention as Lucinda’s efforts to redeem herself to her clan. Its economy runs “on something even more abstract than money, a calculus of reputation and reward” that rewards creativity and ingenuity (a model that authors like Cory Doctorow have helped make highly recognizable to SF readers over the last decade). Benjamin Ben-Ami makes his living garbling Earth’s literature and history for theatrical productions—one of his previous works, “The Tragedy of Leonid Brezhnev, Prince of Muscovy,” will play a pivotal role as events unfold—and for his latest project, he’s gotten approval to download the consciousnesses of two legendary mid-21st century folksingers into new bodies. Winter and Calder’s perspective on the world of tomorrow resonates well with us contemporary readers, and it’s an effective counterpoint to the 24th-century voices... although MacLeod makes it very easy to see where they’re all coming from as well.

One of the things I especially enjoyed about Newton’s Wake is that MacLeod didn’t frontload all his best concepts into the opening chapters. As the pace picks up in the novel’s back half, he’s still teasing out some of the wildest implications of his futuristic premises, in ways that feel perfectly organic to the world he’s created rather than arbitrary narrative solutions. Lucinda’s story takes her across the galaxy and back, in time for what ought to be an epic finale—but there’s still one more act left before we’re through.

By the time I finished Newton’s Wake, I’d remembered why Ken MacLeod has been on my “must-read” list for so long; the combination of strong character dynamics and a convincing model of the social implications of technological progress make this one of my favorite types of SF story. I really need to catch up on his backlist before Intrusion comes out in the U.S. next spring. Anybody want to weigh in on whether I start with Fall Revolution or Cosmonaut Keep?


Ron Hogan is the founding curator of Beatrice.com, one of the first websites to focus on books and authors. Lately, he’s been reviewing science fiction and fantasy for Shelf Awareness.

9 comments
Bill Siegel
1. ubxs113
Macleod became one of my go to authors when The Fall Revolution came across my path several years ago and instantly claimed a spot on my favorites list. Cosmonaut Keep is a good one too but Fall Revolution is phenomenal.
Mouldy Squid
2. Mouldy_Squid
As a Canadian, I have had access to all of MacLeod's books for years. He is one of my favourite authors. Personally, I would recommend reading the Fall Revolution books, but they are pretty heavily political. If you are looking for more space-opera-ish go with the Dark Light trilogy.

His stand alone novels are also very good. You have mentioned two of them, Learning the World and Newton's Wake. You should get your hands on his (arguably) best stand alone novel: The Night Sessions. Mr. McLeod has told me that his new US distributor/publisher, Pyr, is supposed to be re-issuing everything you Yanks didn't get.

To be honest, though, his latest two novels, The Restoration Game and Intrusion are a bit of a disappointment. But with his kind of hard core, high-concept, serious science fiction you can't always keep up the kind of quality MacLeod is known for.
Raskos
3. Raskos
I enjoyed Newton's Wake, but I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn't reading a Charlie Stross novel. No doubt this will earn me the ire of both authors, and all that I can say in my defence is that I would never make the mistake with any of their other works.
I'd recommend the Cosmonaut Keep series, marginally, over the Fall Revolution books, but I'm a zoologist and I liked what MacLeod did with the sampled Earth biotas on different worlds. However, I recall MacLeod himself saying that his preferred future, of all of the futures in his various books, was the one depicted in The Sky Road.
Andrew Love
4. Andy Love
I really enjoyed the culture conflicts in this book - by the Carlyle's lights, the Eurydiceans are descended from war criminals and owe reparations, while the Eurydiceans see the Carlyles as slave-owners.
Raskos
5. a1ay
The Night Sessions is unquestionably his best. How good is it? It's so good that my mother picked up my copy, started reading it, borrowed it and took it home with her - the first time that she has ever read a SF novel in her life.

After that, the Fall Revolution ones are also good - though they are visibly written by a much younger man than the more recent stuff.
Raskos
6. phuzz
Of his more recent novels, I really enjoyed Learning The World, for it's twist on the idea of humans meeting aliens for the first time, and The Execution Channel, mainly for the early scene of a nuke going off in the UK, and the twist at the end which you will never see coming.
Raskos
7. Thomas M. Wagner
I'm pleased to see this one back in print. I liked it a great deal when it came out, and have been sad to see it's been such an underappreciated book in after years. Hope it finds a new and appreciative readership now.
Raskos
8. steven k
This is a book I have often considered buying and I would love to add it to my ebook collection. It would be nice if you would inlude a link to buy the book on the review page.
Hank Roberts
9. hankroberts
How about a link to plain text ASCII? Or a comment on how to extract that from these NOOK etc. files? It's silly that I can buy the hardback book for around $4 shipped from Florida or Texas when the ebook's both more expensive and in a format requiring buying a NOOK device to read.

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