Ken Macleod’s entrance onto the science fiction stage was a happy marriage of space opera and futuristic politics. The Fall Revolution a non-linear tetralogy of branching stories and timelines, it kept glancing back at our reality while pushing its unique narrative forward. The follow up, the Engines of Light trilogy, took itself less seriously, dipping into many familiar stereotypes of space fiction. In 2004 Macleod disengaged with series and went the stand-alone route, Newton’s Wake the result. Combining the politics of the Fall Revolution with the tried-n-true space opera fireworks of the Engines of Light, it comes across as a leaner version of an Iain Banks’ novel, which is not bad company.
Lucinda Carlyle and her team of scavengers emerge from a wormhole on the planet Eurydice to investigate anything worth looting. Though encountering a baffling array of technology so advanced as to appear alien, they have no time to investigate, the local (human) militia swooping in and grabbing them. Taken prisoner, Carlyle and her team are brought to the capitol city and learn they are the biggest news the planet has ever had. Despite all of its technical prowess and know-how, the people of Eurydice believed they were the lone survivors of a Singularity event thousands of years prior that supposedly destroyed all humanity. Carlyle and her team proving otherwise, a new light is put upon the alien technology. But things really break wide open when another faction of humanity arrives. No small team of scavengers, a massive ship lands and effectively takes over the planet, that is, unless the local Eurydiceans, and perhaps Lucinda, have something to say about it.
Macleod has always tried to keep one foot in the genre mainstream and the other attempting to make its own path. With Newton’s Wake, however, the other foot treads very close to familiar territory, making for what may be Macleod’s most conventional novel. Unknown alien tech, a BDO, wormholes, Singularity events, transferrable consciousness, space battles, armored exoskeletons—the only real personal stamp Macleod puts on the proceedings is the fleshed out political beliefs of the various post-human factions. All futuristic twists on democratic, socialist, anarchist, etc. societies, they nevertheless underlie a plot that could have come from any time in science fiction the past seventy years.
Though not as overtly tongue-in-cheek as Jack Vance’s Space Opera, in Newton’s Wake Macleod nevertheless takes a stab at paralleling space adventure with space opera. Clearly intended to be a plot device that informs the main story, two musicians of a former age are resurrected in Eurydice and become involved with a theater director trying to artistically present the political struggles of his society on stage. Stage props paralleled with “real-world” space battles, the device does its job in overt fashion—which seems to have been the intent.
In the end, Newton’s Wake is space opera as many would have it. Pace, action, concept—all combine to deliver the goods of the medium in a tight package (+/-350 pages). The political angles lack the uniqueness of Macleod’s Fall Revolution series, but given Macleod seems to have been aiming at a broader fan base, is perhaps understandable. Space opera has been popular for a long time, and with Newton’s Wake Macleod offers his own pie for the tasting.