Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Review of The Sky Road by Ken Macleod

For those who have read the first three books in Ken Macleod’s Fall Revolution series, The Sky Road will be a sublimely satisfying last bow.  None of the books connected linearly in a strong sense of the expression (in other words, it’s not necessary to read them in order but it goes a long way toward manifesting the overall vision), The Sky Road offers yet another perspective on the future of humanity through the splintered lens of politics and technology.  The novel is a delicately pointed end to the series, and while certainly the most subdued, may be the best of the four.

Like The Stone Canal, The Sky Road is divided into two stories told in alternating chapters.  The first focuses on a young man named Colvis colha Gree and is set at a time centuries in the future when the world has re-built itself to a pleasantly bucolic/industrial state many years after a major civilization-destroying apocalypse.  Though a history major at the local university, Colvis is working his summer vacation as a welder on a crew building the first rocket the world has seen in ages. Technology beyond mechanical considered “black knowledge”, the rocket represents mankind’s first excursion back into space since the Deliverer saved humanity.  Meeting a young woman while drinking at the town market one day, Colvis suddenly finds his studies and work have a connection. 

Set around 2050, the second story centers on Myra Godwin-Davidov—a character who momentarily appeared near the conclusion of The Stone Canal.  Now chairman of the ISTWR, a politically independent entity located in the middle of Kazakhstan, Myra maintains its sovereignty by selling nuclear deterrence.  Owner of the last remaining nuclear weapons (WWIII having used up the majority of supply and later sanctions putting a stop to production), they utilize the threat rather than the actual application of nukes toward selling contracts to other countries, promising to use the weapons if their enemy should attack.  The tactic having worked for years, the ISTWR reap the financial benefit of its wieldy possessions.  But when a militarily and politically aggressive threat appears from among the former Chinese and Russian states, Myra soon finds she may have to give up hoarding her weapons and make good on her contracts.  Avoiding nuclear war becomes her main drive.

The Fall Revolution sequence not only experimenting with differing political and technological scenarios, it also finds Macleod trying out different writing styles.  The Sky Road might be called an attempt at the “subdued”.   Lacking the blunt wit and dynamics of The Stone Canal or The Star Fraction and the flow of sci-fi action in The Cassini Division, The Sky Road sees Macleod drawing on the reins, hauling his style within arm’s reach.  Neither sparkling or inventive, it nevertheless carries the plot forward smoothly, drawing the two stories together in subtle fashion.  Bits of information strung out in greater and greater quantities, the stories themselves escalate smoothly, building to a Arthur C. Clarke The City and the Stars climax, i.e. an appropriate denouement that has all the life it needs without a major display of fireworks.  In a similar vein, anyone expecting to read the novel and get a sense of closure or understanding to the series as a whole had better think again.  Things remain as open as any of the other four novels, underlining the fact that the books aren’t about making a political statement, rather experimenting with politics and technology.

It is thus in comparison and contrast to the story told in The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division that readers will find The Sky Road’s value.  The Fall Revolution sequence structured atypically, Macleod’s agenda, commentary, and theorizing can be seen in better light when placed alongside the other novels, rather than in linear progression.  Putting a sharper focus on the realities (or at least the realities as Macleod imagines them) resulting from the clash of politics in practice, readers gain a deeper appreciation for the larger vision presented, and in turn are able to ask themselves questions regarding the present progression of Earth’s societies. Likewise, Leigh Brackett's novel The Long Tomorrow forms a nice analog to the philosophical import of Colvis' story and, perhaps, the inevitability of such technology.

Some of my complaints about the previous books in the series have been addressed in The Sky Road, though not in an entirely satisfactory fashion. Let me digress for a moment.  One of the great aspects of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is the degree of detail she went into presenting a functioning version of anarchy—both it’s good and bad sides.  Macleod juggling a number of fictional political scenarios himself, it’s nice when the background is fleshed out with that little something which brings them to life.  Largely avoiding this point in the series to date, The Sky Road does, thankfully, include more of the socio-political background to Myra’s world.  And Colvis’ love story? Well, it’s no more convincing than the love triangle in The Stone Canal.

In the end, The Sky Road is another nicely painted tile in the mosaic of Fall Revolutions.  Featuring muted and restrained coloring, the novel moves closer to the personal and away from the technologically abstract—Myra’s story particularly compelling.  Political ideas, however, remain in full force.  Socialism, capitalism, and versions between and beyond are all in play, making the novel another stew of ideology about societal organization, a nice touch of Silver Age science fiction underlying it all.  As I mentioned, it’s not necessary to read the Fall Revolution books in order.  However, doing so gives the reader a much better opportunity to appreciate not only Macleod’s progression as a writer, but also the background to some of the references in the later books—references not necessary for understanding, rather as links to the whole the author is working with.  Fans of Greg Egan, Robert Heinlein, Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, and Ursula Le Guin would be doing themselves a favor by going out and buying not only this series, but any book by Macleod.  Like these authors, he writes for reasons beyond simple entertainment.


  1. I was owned copies of both The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division, but I ended up selling them to the second-hand bookstore because I was greatly disappointed with The Engine's of Light trilogy and very, very disappoint in his first-contact novel, Newton's Wake.

    1. No doubt Macleod is an acquired taste. His relatively opaque style and political exposition are not to everyone's taste. That being said, he remains one of the more intelligent voices in the field. You might try some of his later works which are more near future and possess stronger style?