Ken Macleod’s The Stone Canal opens with the story of the young Jonathan Wilde and the major happenings of he and a fair-weather friend as they grow up in near-future Scotland. Getting drunk, chasing girls, and arguing politics, they eventually split due to personal differences as post-humanisn spins everyone’s lives in crazy directions. Easing back on the throttle (aiming at ‘mere’ purposeful humanism), Macleod’s 2014 Descent uses a similar character setup, but keeps its agenda more closely tied to the here and now. Purported UFO sightings, government and commercial conspiracy theories, speciation, and subjective reality abound, the story of Ryan Sinclair successfully extends the personal struggles of Wilde into more relatable and eerie Orwellian near future. Featuring the tightest technique of the author’s career, some may argue it is Macleod’s best yet.
Where Ian Watson’s Miracle Visitors plays with the psychological, cultural, and sociological aspects of UFO visitations, Descent looks into the ____________ aspects. To fill in that blank would spoil the story, but suffice to say Macleod uses existent concepts on the pinboard of UFO theorists to paint what he would see as the empirical reality of the situation. From government conspiracy to neuroscience, the underpinnings of urban myth to street drugs, the strange objects people—some of whom consider themselves rational beings—see in the sky are looked at in mysterious/thriller-esque style. As the front cover copy says, seeing is not always enough to believe.
In the opening scene, Ryan and chum Calum decide to take a walk in the hills on the outskirts of Edinburgh, leaving their mobile phones behind in order to enjoy the experience as much as possible. But a fog settles in, and the two briefly lose their way. When clear skies return, the two regain their orientation and are about to head home when a bright, silvery sphere descends on them. Everything goes blank. Awaking in a circle of burned grass and ash, the two stumble, confused, back to Ryan’s. But the sphere is not the end of it. That night in bed, Ryan is visited by a being from another galaxy and taken to a spaceship.
It’s exactly at this point (though the reader is unaware until they finish the novel) that Macleod takes Descent in its own direction. As classic as alien abduction is in the genre, what follows the abduction is the personal story of a young man not yet told throughout science fiction’s history. Ryan a person the reader will struggle to like, his lack of passion, semi-self-destructive behavior, voyeurism, and existence on the troubled side of nerdy bring about serious personal problems—problems exacerbated by his walk in the hills and its aftermath. Macleod wraps up his story with too nice a bow in my opinion, but to that point, the challenges of Ryan’s situation are conveyed in terms humanly gray.
What Descent does, and does well, is build suspense. The mystery surrounding the two friends’ experience shifts left and right, from the color of home and school life to the more finely-tuned focus of university and professional life. James Baxter being Macleod’s most effective tool, the enigma surrounding the man’s involvement and interaction with Ryan compels the reader to continue, the enigma snowballing all the way until the final pages.
In the acknowledgments, Macleod thanks those who helped him with Descent while he was writer in residence at Edinburgh Napier University. No matter whether the thirteen novels under his belt to date or pressure from the residency to elevate his game even higher, Descent is Macleod’s most accomplished novel. Technique working its way ever closer to some personal sense of perfection, Descent is tightly plotted, achieves its desired effect (more in a moment) through sharp prose, and produces perhaps Macleod’s most human character to date. While I think Macleod’s best is yet to come, Descent shows him edging in.
A few reviews of Descent have attributed a sense of incompleteness, of further mysteries unresolved, one even postulating a sequel. I couldn’t disagree more. Everything is tied off nicely; if Macleod opts for a sequel it would be to expand the setting, not the storyline. (Macleod, if you’re reading, there is a novel waiting in the surveillance society you describe. Please write it.) But I understand why someone might be deceived into thinking so. The reality of UFOs hazy, it’s fitting the main mystery of Descent appears to conclude in layered fashion. For those who pay attention early in the novel, however, particularly the section which outlays the variety of UFO theories, they will notice Macleod later uses these options to provide “definitive” answers to the mystery, and are particularly satisfying given the foundation of reason he was working with.
If there are any shortcomings to Descent, it would be the canned nature of the concepts utilized. Speciation, commercial r&d, relationship drama, surveillance tech, etc.—all have been contrived and designed to tell a story. Only the examination of UFOs and personal aspects of Ryan’s life transcend the pages. Shortcomings perhaps too strong a word (the ideas are combined to solid effect), perhaps extraneous is a better way of describing all of the concepts glommed onto the main storyline. Digging deeper into the characters and the UFO situation would have produced an equally suspenseful novel while attaining a greater degree of humanism—more literary, less thriller. But that, of course, is personal preference.
I so badly want to write more about Descent, but to do so would be to spoil the central storyline. So, I will simply conclude by saying the novel is perhaps Macleod’s most humane (Ryan is a character the reader will struggle to come to terms with, indicating strong degrees of reality have been achieved). It possesses some interesting near-future extrapolation involving surveillance and drone tech (which could be expanded much more). But perhaps most interesting is the manner in which it cuts to the blood and bones of UFO encounters.