Ken Macleod’s The Star Fraction, despite the throwback genre name, was a politically variegated take on near-future science fiction with a view to the solar system and humanity’s evolution at large. The three books in the Fall Revolution series which followed, linked fractally at best, expanded the novel’s ideas into the far-future—wormholes, A.I., post-humans, colonies on other planets, and ultimately into a The City and the Stars statement. Located more toward the sophisticated end of the science fiction spectrum, they are something unique for their detailed politics and technical and social concepts which accompany. Not trusting their audience, when Tor rolled out the series in the US they chose the most accessible, identifiable work among the four books as the first offering. Thus, when completing the Fall Revolution series and looking for a new direction, Macleod opted to take the same route as American publishers.
Cosmonaut Keep (2000), opening volume in the three-book Engines of Light series, continues to mix politics into its storyline and work with near-future to far-future settings, but does so with a retro-sf sensibility. One storyline cyberpunk-ish in its initial outlay but developing into a classic conspiracy theory on a space station, the second is even more recognizable for its love triangle, aliens, and setting on a world far, far away but with corporations, castles, aristocrats, etc. Macleod lowering the denominator from the Fall Revolution series, the result is a novel (and series) of broader aim and appeal that jettisons sophistication in favor of accessibility: Cosmonaut Keep, and the Engines of Light trilogy, is space opera—Ken Macleod space opera, but space opera.
UFOs, plots aboard space stations, computer hacking, mysterious aliens, romance—Cosmonaut Keep indeed has the workings of a grand space opera. Macleod noticeably toning back the density of politics (though he can’t help but slip a little in), keeping his plots more linear in aim, lightening up on the insider jargon (though thankfully there is still some), and including several major elements readily recognizable to the space opera crowd, it’s clear Macleod was hoping to appeal to a wider audience.
But in doing so, Macleod feels out of his element—as if forcing himself to write down to mainstream science fiction. As a result, the love scenes and aliens bear no conviction. High school love triangle wherein one girl catches boy kissing other girl: not Macleod’s forte. Stereotyped bald-headed alien with big black eyes, thin slit of a mouth, and who smokes weed: more a laugh at university days. Capitalist vs. communist plot driver: isn’t it obvious? To be certain, Macleod is a better writer than Alastair Reynolds and delivers his space opera in more concise, nuanced terms. But his other offerings, those which really engage the complex political and conceptual sides of his brain, nevertheless seem as though they were easier to write, and therefore, therefore easier to read.
Cosmonaut Keep divided into alternating narratives, the first is the story of a Scottish computer programmer living in Soviet occupied Europe, Matt Cairns. Scotland technically a socialist democracy, Cairns makes a living in the shadows of the internet, writing programs, legal and otherwise, on an ad hoc basis. In contact with an American woman named Jadey, one of her requests sets his life’s trajectory moving in a new direction, and by the time the novel is finished, may even be out of this solar system. The second storyline is of a person named Grigor Cairns, a scientist doing research into the kraken-like creatures who inhabit his planet’s oceans. Commerce a premium, he and the other humans trade with the other alien group inhabiting the planet, the saurs. The saurs millennia ahead of humanity in terms of technology and knowledge, one of their kind, a male named Salasso, assists Grigor with his work. But it is the prodding of a human investor which knocks Grigor from the rigors of the laboratory and into the real world. The doors of his love life oscillating between open and closed with two women, his friendship with Salasso ends up taking him to places no human has ever been, and just may open a door to humanity never before known to exist.
In the end, Cosmonaut Keep is quality space opera, but still space opera. For every interesting concept, there is an eye-rolling love story. For the intriguing political setup, there are tried and true alien stereotypes. And thus while Cosmonaut Keep is a small disappointment to me, it’s only for its lack of sophistication compared to the Fall Revolution sequence (but realize this probably puts me in the minority). Precisely for this, there are certainly readers who will consider its relative accessibility a change for the positive, and lap up the novels. Regardless, Macleod, like C.J. Cherryh, Charles Stross, Paul McAuley, and others, has a science fiction in his blood, and the story shows.