eDiscover Great Reads

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.

Ken 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.


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