Back cover copy claims Ken Macleod’s debut The Star Fraction (1995) is like “modern-day George Orwell”, and there is some truth in it. Not an examination of totalitarianism, the novel is rather a thought experiment on technology in an environment as rife with subtly variegated politics as the scene Orwell covered in WWII Spain in Homage to Catalonia. Given the dry wit and experimentatal mode, however, I would say that Macleod is more Heinleinian. Regardless of classic parallels, however, the first of the four books which comprises the Fall Revolution sequence, The Star Fraction, is an astonishingly confident debut which examines poly-sci in a way neither author did: the Singularity.
Before jumping to the review, I think it is necessary to position the The Star Fraction within the context of the series given it is certainly not an A-B-C-D affair. When I picture the Fall Revolution sequence in my mind’s eye, a lobster claw appears. The Star Fraction being the wrist from which two stories branch, The Stone Canal forms the claw and The Cassini Division its pointed end, while The Sky Road forms the second storyline, the pincer. Setting the tone (style, pace, mode of presentation, etc.), The Star Fraction introduces readers to Macleod’s brand of sci-fi and presents the major themes at work in the three books which follow. Thus, if you are thinking of reading Macleod, it is strongly encouraged to begin with this novel.
Set in mid 21st century, The Star Fraction is the story of three people and those they encounter in a Britain (and world, for that matter) that has fragmented politically. Moh Kohn is a socialist mercenary, available for hire to any of the enclaves scattered over London. Taking a security job for a university, he runs into one of the research professors, Janis Taine, quite by accident, and has his world turned inside out as a result. The two find themselves on the run when Stasis, the US/UN secret police, descend on her lab to enforce anti-technology and knowledge suppression laws her work into the enhancement of mouse intelligence seeks to breach. The third character, Jordan, is a hacker working for a trading company in Beulah city. Able to hide his atheism from his family only for so long, the enclave’s ultra-conservative repression of non-Christian lifestyles wears heavy on the young man. Contacted by a mysterious cyber-entity while trading one day, Jordan’s ticket out of the Bible Belt is soon in coming, however. With underground resistance of all variety dotting the social landscape, his path, along with Moh and Janis’, soon veer wildly out of control. Technology advancing in ways no single human can fully perceive, the world’s political equilibrium moves in and out of balance, sweeping everyone up in its path.
Though combining choice bits and pieces of cyberpunk, dystopian, “accelerated”, and classic sci-fi, Macleod makes The Star Fraction his own by combining and infusing these ideas with political ideology. Readers not up to snuff on the shades of left and right will get an education—or lost in the process. Playing up rather than down to reader intelligence, little is spoon fed. Info dumps are few and far between, and given the author’s wit is as dry as a desert, it requires focus to determine the difference between sarcasm and important plot information. Yes, it’s one of those books that if you don’t pay attention it’ll seem like the characters are talking over your head—the discussion one whose details you’re not privy to though you’re standing in the room. The more polished your political science, the more you’ll enjoy the book, though it’s not entirely necessary. It goes without saying the re-read value is extremely high.
Another warning, if you’re one of those readers who is uncomfortable being dropped into the middle of a functioning setting with no baseline, don’t read The Star Fraction. The pace at the outset steady and a touch scrambled, it takes a while for the narrative to feel out the limits and possibilities of Macleod’s mid 21st century Britain. References often obscure and in-humor flourishing, many will be put off by what at first seems an oblique story. Rest assured, however, the slow consistency with which Macleod unfolds the story is also used to tuck the story into bed the closer one gets to the conclusion.
And a nice conclusion it is. Forming the fork at which the Fall Revolution sequence’s two storylines branch, the novel finishes the tale in style and sets the agenda for the meta-stories in the books that follow. Jonathan Wilde, a character who is featured more prominently in the other books (whether in person or by reference), is introduced; the space program evolves; and AI takes on a meaning that will have the reader guessing to the climax.
In the end, The Star Fraction is a unique work of science fiction for the degree with which political science is presented and motivates plot and character. Other elements, particularly the cyberpunk and “accelerated” elements may also be familiar to readers, but the intricacies and nuance of Trotskyism, anarcho-capitalism, green fundamentalism, and other ideologies may not be. Macleod’s writing style not the most prosaic, its workaday nature nevertheless fits the story, particularly given the Scottish-ness of the wit, the wordplay and the distance kept from plot event and character movement. As can be seen, the book (and sequence) comes highly recommended for anyone interested in political theory or looking to see such ideas developed in a near-future sci-fi setting. Heinlein obviously a major influence on Macleod, anyone who has enjoyed that author’s more politicized works may also want to check out The Star Fraction.
(A final note regarding the Fall Revolution sequence as a whole and what it’s about. Social ideology forever at the forefront, The Star Fraction is the heaviest, most politically inundated of the four books. The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division, and The Sky Road are more straightforward, offering stronger balance of plot and theory. As hinted at above, The Stone Canal takes one potential future and develops it to a certain point, relying on The Cassini Division to round out that particular storyline. The Sky Road, on the other hand, takes a different potential future from on The Star Fraction and develops it in its own way, simultaneously forming a point of comparison and contrast to the other two books. All in all, each book presents a window/thought experiment on a different time in the future, emphasizes politics, the Singularity, and society, and is aimed at an alinear whole rather than a linear storyline. Thus, those looking to get the most out of the Fall Revolution will want to read them in the order they were published in the UK: The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division, and The Sky Road , US publishers varying the order.)