Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Review of The Cassini Division by Ken Macleod

The Stone Canal, predecessor to The Cassini Division, saw a flurry of technical, and as a result, social developments, move one part of humanity to post-human status.  And so while Wilde and Reid’s personal matters were resolved, larger matters, that is, an agreement between standard and post-humans was left hanging, a peaceful resolution far from certain.  Focusing precisely on this schism, The Cassini Division, Ken Macleod’s third novel in the Fall Revolution sequence, brings the implications of Singularity to full head.

Set 350 years after the events of The Star Fraction, The Cassini Division is told through the eyes of Ellen May Ngwethu, captain of the spaceship Terrible Beauty and one of Cassini Division’s most prominent officers.  Assigned the protection of humanity, she and her comrades occupy the moon Callisto, dutifully guarding the wormhole and the hive-like construction on Jupiter from any post-human incursion.  At the outset of the novel, Ellen is sent to Earth to bring back Sam Malley.  A brilliant physicit responsible for the mathematics supporting the engineering of the wormhole, Cassini Division has a mind to enlist his help for a sortie through the ‘hole to meet with New Mars.  A non-cooperator—capitalist, that is, finding Malley amongst the dirty underbelly of London’s non-Socialists on Earth proves tricky, while convincing him to join their team proves moreso.  Ellen fully believing the fate of humanity hangs in the balance, she pursues her mission with confidence and stubbornness, and ultimately takes her fight to other star systems.  Whether the post-humans have good intentions, well, that the reader will have to discover alongside Ellen.

Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 featured a non-white, female protagonist who went about her business with intelligence and confidence.  In no way aping Rydra Wong, Macleod does the same with Ellen May Ngwethu.  A black woman captaining a crew of racial “misfits”, her convictions motivate every decision and action taken.  From risking the finding of Malley herself to making the decision to attack a certain something at the novel’s climax, sexual choices to taking the lead in negotiations, Ellen proves herself a strong female protagonist.  Not a buxom body in a tight jumpsuit, Macleod deserves credit for the character created.

It’s debatable whether the version of humanity Aldous Huxley portrays in Brave New World is post-human, it certainly is dissimilar to the version of humanity today.  In The Cassini Division, Macleod draws a line between humanity and post-humans, no room left for guessing in their altogether alien form of “living”.  Ngwethu’s hatred for the “accelerated” oozing off the pages, Macleod patiently introduces external factors which call into doubt the existential substance of these entities—the fast thinkers. Not revealing his own stance on the subject until the climax, suffice to say that death plays an important role, just as with Brave New World.  (And that is not the spoiler you may think it is.) 

I have read numerous reviews disgusted with an idea that Ellen represents Macleod’s own left leanings.  Given that the author takes the piss out of her and her colleagues at several points, including a key moment at the climax, it’s tough for me to agree.  Yes, Ellen is 100% socialist, but the totality of her beliefs does not match the subtlety of the story.  Macleod is simply too clever to leave himself exposed, as such.  Thus, anyone reading the story would do well to remain neutral and trust that Macleod has more on his agenda than simply cramming socialist ideology down the reader’s throat.  Ellen is merely a character in form, meaning the novel is not propaganda per se.  The other three books of the Fall Revolution likewise present imagined visions of various ideologies, The Cassini Division just happens to be the most socialist—a fact indeed hammered home by the strength of Ellen’s convictions, but is not the be all, end all.

In the end, The Cassini Division is the most action-packed novel of the Fall Revolution to date.  Closing out the story arc started in The Stone Canal, all readers’ questions regarding the nature and intent of the post-humans are answered.  In the telling, readers are likewise introduced to a wonderful character in Ellen May Ngwethu.  Acting on informed conviction, holding her tongue for the greater good, and taking no shit when the situation demands it, she is the anchorpin holding the exciting story that unravels around her—and because of her—in place.  Macleod nicely juxtaposing the political ideals of socialism, capitalism, post-humanism, and anarcho-capitalism in a story which emphasizes the main thrusts of each through character, it remains only for The Sky Road to put it all in context.

Before closing out the review, I would like to make mention of a difference in the publication order in case this is the first book by Ken Macleod the reader has come across.  Published for the US market two years after first appearing in the UK, Tor made the (foolish) decision to publish The Cassini Division first.  Thinking that US readers wouldn’t be able to handle the political nuance of The Star Fraction, they chose to publish the most action-packed and accessible of the four novels for their own concerns first, i.e. to see how the market would react.  Destroying the continuity Macleod intended in one money-minded decision, US readers would do best to start with The Star Fraction and work in order from there.  Certainly the books are not entry level sci-fi, but for the intelligent reader they can be very rewarding.  The correct order is: The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division, and The Sky Road.


  1. Hmm. I've read very little SF published after 1975. But I might just give this cycle of books a try. (I couldn't bring myself to say "series.")

    1. I'm curious why it is you haven't read much after '75. Was there a change in the genre that put you off? Did another genre grab you? Did your overall interest in sf wane? (It goes without saying if the stoppage was personal you need not go into detail. ;)

  2. Hmm. In the early '70s, I was reading everything considered a classic of the genre - published between the late '40s and late '60s - plus contemporary stuff. As the SF of that time became more literary, or at least references to literature became more common in the SF world of that time, I became more interested in literature than SF. Why not read the real thing? Then, around the same time, there was this girl who loved literature, and I figured I'd make a better impression on her if I carried Balzac or Proust around under my arm, rather than Rendezvous with Rama. (Maybe I figured French writers were more suggestive of romance. Who knows?) The irony is that after we got together, and then broke up, she got involved with a young writer who had just published his first ... science fiction stories. Such is life. Anyways, I didn't read science fiction again for about twenty-five years, and it was stuff even older (or more old fashioned) than the stuff I had read in the past: Cummings, Hamilton, Leinster, etc. Now I'm curious whether or not there's any 21st century SF that would appeal to me. (I know it won't be space opera - I've had my fill.) It's one reason why I read your blog.

    1. A hard experience to have in order to learn that sci-fi does have sex appeal!

      Literary science fiction in the 21 st century... Hmm... It exists, no doubt, but given the state the genre has evolved to, finding it becomes all the more difficult. When looking through my library, in fact, almost all the authors I identified as 'literary' were either dead or started publishing more than 25 years ago. Checking out awards over the past decade, and again I'm met with disappointment. Charles Stross, John Scalzi, Alastair Reynolds, Jo Walton, Richard Morgan et al. all hail from the 'fun' side of the genre and are bearable only in doses. Ken Macleod, Iain Banks, Ian McDonald, Kim Stanley Robinson and several others are writing intelligent sci-fi that possesses a degree of integrity the previously mentioned authors do not. But at the same time, their stories are lacking that touch of gravitas such authors as Thomas Disch, J.G. Ballard, Robert Silverberg, M. John Harrison, or Christopher Priest possess. From what I can tell, the majority of literary sci-fi is currently being published in short form, and by female authors. Cathrynne Valente, Rachel Swirsky, Kij Johnson, Elizabeth Hand, and a variety of others are all writing stories which utilize symbolism in prosaic form and are a joy to understand at multiple levels. I would highly recommend Silently and Very Fast by Valente and The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen's Window by Swirsky as excellent examples of literary sci-fi being published today. Both are novellas with beauty and depth.

      Literary fantasy, well that is a beast I will leave off discussing today. :)