Unravelling the universe: Ken Macleod’s Cosmonaut Keep

Cosmonaut Keep is the first book in the Engines of Light series, but it stands alone very well and would be a good introduction to Macleod for someone who hasn’t run into him before. It’s a double stranded book, one strand set among hackers in near-future Edinburgh and orbit, the other half set halfway around the galaxy on the planet of Mingalay, which boasts five intelligent species, all of which evolved on Earth, living together and trading in reasonable harmony between the stars. Both Matt, in the near future, and Gregor, in the far away one, are reasonable everymen, but they’re not just there to carry the reader on a trip through the universe. Before the book’s over we’ve had first contact, alien intervention, intrigue, philosophy, guilt about the dinosaur-killer, star travel, true love, and octopodia as a key insight. Both stories build to their climaxes and dovetail, solving many mysteries and leaving others open for the other two books in the series.

And then there’s Cosmonaut Keep itself:

He and Margaret stepped out on the ground floor […] and made their way around several zig-zag turns of defensive corridor. Antique spacesuits stood in artfully placed ambuscade niches.

The corridor opened into the castle’s main hall, a cavernous space hung with retrofitted electric lights, its fifteen meter high walls covered with carpets and tapestries and portraits of the Cosmonaut Families, heads and hides of dinosaurs, and decoratively arranged displays of the light artillery with which these giant quarry had been sportingly slain.

No real plot spoilers, but it’s hard to avoid them when talking about both halves of the story.

This is a really nifty universe and I could talk all day about it. What I really noticed this time is how much of the story happens in the spaces. To begin with, there’s the gap between now (well, 2000) and the Earth of roughly 2050. A lot has happened—Russia’s become communist again and conquered the EU, and everybody’s fairly relaxed about it, except in England (the Former UK or FUK) where there’s various resistance going on, partially arranged by the Americans. Island of stability elements have been found. Tech is biodegradable, use it and throw it away. People are coming out with hacks for aging. But they’re still going to the pub and people who can legacy code in MS DOS will never want for work. Now Matt takes all this for granted and we get it in bits and pieces. He gets caught up with subversives and aliens by what seems to him to be chance.

Then there’s the space between the two stories, between the end of Matt’s story when he turns the alien engine on and the beginning of Gregor’s two hundred and fifty years later on Minagulay. Many writers would have written an interesting story about Matt and his comrades being suddenly plunged into the complex world of saurs and krakens and Nova Babylonians and Scoffer humans from Croatan. The krakens and the saurs both evolved on Earth and they’ve been bringing people—and proto people, there are gigants and pithkies which I take to be the two kinds of austrolopithecus—from Earth to the Second Sphere ever since. The spaceships move instantly at light speed, so it takes no more than a few hours to travel between stars, but years will have passed both on the world you left and the one you’re arriving at. They’re alien tech, and the human merchants who travel on them are passengers.The saurs go around in gravity skiffs, which are flying saucers, and they look like those grey aliens from Roswell—but the saurs in the Second Sphere say they have no information about what any saurs in the solar system may have been doing.

So the stories dance across the gaps between them and mesh, and half the fun of this kind of thing is putting it all together in your head—but it’s not for beginners to science fiction, Macleod assumes that you’re familiar with all the SF reading protocols. If you do, it’s gently funny, and it gives a genuine sense of both historic and geological time, of aliens that are alien but comprehensible as well as other, more alien aliens whose motivations remain unclear. This is much more lighthearted than the Fall Revolution books—it’s a space opera, but it’s just as interested in the way people live together and the way government intersects with technology.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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