Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Review of The Execution Channel by Ken Macleod

The Fall Revolution quartet, Engines of Light trilogy, Newton’s Wake, and Learning the World—the first nine novels written by Ken Macleod—are all science fiction of a new space opera/far future/BIG concept variety. In 2007, however, the author decided to abandon space and focus on Earth and contemporary concerns.  The Execution Channel his first near-future work, it also (seemingly) gave Macleod a release valve for his thoughts regarding terrorism and the surrounding post-9-11 disorder in media and government.  A savvy techno-thriller, the novel delivers all of the political science Macleod is known for in an angry, riveting story of (dis)information in the age of the Patriot Act.  Keeping his oeuvre fresh, the transition produced a work as notable as those which came before.

On the opening page of The Execution Channel, a small nuclear bomb is detonated on an American military base in Scotland.  A handful of nuclear explosions having gone off in the few intervening years between now and when the story is set, it’s not a huge surprise (in the context of 9-11, that is) but one which has those involved active and hungry for knowledge about responsible parties so they may seek vengeance.  Initially announced as a weapon malfunction by the British government, a young peace activist named Roisin was at the base a short time before the explosion and has photos which tell a different story.  The blogosphere exploding with frenzied discussion, big questions, and complex conspiracy theories, a blogger named Mark Dark tries to dig through the muddle to find the truth.  While sieving through the information and disinformation provided by viewers, known sources, and internet hit groups, Dark comes across info that sheds an interesting light on the accusations flying at Al Quaeda, Syria, Russia, China, Korea, and beyond. 

Meanwhile in England, secret service agents from the UK and US are working together to find a man whose IT company Result is suspected of delivering confidential info to the French. The man named John Travis, the fact his son is a soldier fighting in Kazakhstan for the UK doesn’t help secure his innocence, nor does the son’s seemingly coded blog posts.  The resulting milieu of internet rumors, leads and false leads, secret service actions, witch hunts, bluffs, double bluffs, double blind bluffs, and actual data reveals keep the world in spin.  Slow in the offing, the truth behind the nuclear explosion is slowly revealed, with no one more surprised than the parties involved.

Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net upgraded for the 21 st century, The Execution Channel is a tightly written novel that contains all of Macleod’s off-hand references and informed, plausibly presented tech, indirect dialogue, as well as left-hand plot turns when a straight road seems to lie ahead.  A well-paced techno-thriller, the plot does a magnificent job of intertwining real-world politics with characters that are not much larger-than-life—as is often the case of stories with such a premise.  The paranoia, fear, motivation, and involvement at the personal level is near tactile, resulting in a truly engaging story that moves consistently and steadily forward.

If there was any doubt, The Execution Channel perfectly captures the relativity of information in the 21 st century.  With major interest groups covertly sowing disinformation, conspiracy theorists connecting the dots in random fashion (or not—wink-wink), media outlets looking to present anything remotely referenced for commercial purposes, and hard data so often protected for marketing or political purposes that it never appears publicly, it’s tough to pin down anything one hears to reality these days.  Macleod effectively deploying the blogosphere, world wide web, and the IT knowledge needed to operate beneath the surface of informatics, the growing uncertainty regarding the reliability of knowledge is portrayed in scarily realistic form.  Tactical, accidental, sabotage—the possible reasons behind the nuclear explosion fly like leaves in autumn.  Uncertainty is information” quotes Travis as everyone around him in the story weaves their way in and out of what they perceive to be fact, in turn echoing modern sentiment about news and media supplied data all too plausibly.

As to the title, The Execution Channel is not a neo-Running Man/Arnold Schwarzenegger travesty.  A two-way mirror, in the novel the Execution Channel is television station which mindlessly cycles through footage of executions of political prisoners from around the world.  Serving to reflect Western government and media focus (as macabre as it may be), written between the lines and made apparent in the conclusion is the view from the backside of the mirror—what the view should truly be.  Certainly there will be readers who declaim the novel’s ending as over-the-top, yet it would seem they too have been distracted by the “executions”.  I use quotation marks as, Macleod’s point in ending the novel the way he does is to say, “Hey! While we (meaning Western powers) actively participate (meaning waste our time) in global subterfuge, spread paranoid disinformation to protect political and commercial interests, build cases for retaliation against terrorism, and warmonger, we are losing sight of what really matters: the furthering of society and civilization through the discovery of knowledge and development of new technologies.”  Though there is a bit of neo-socialist utopianism invested (but with Macleod, this is to be expected), the sincerity of the idea nevertheless rings true.

In the end, The Execution Channel is an intelligent techno-thriller with realistically informed politics and media.  Blog posts, television reports, newspaper articles, chat forums, official statements, information, disinformation—all is thrown into an exciting fusion that never slows from page one.  It’s also polemical.  Terrorism and the so-called war on terrorism in the spotlight, Macleod uses his knowledge of the web and political science to cook up a scheme that is entirely plausible given the relativity of information and the agendas of the US, UK, and other big western governments, but remains focused on social and technological ideas that matter beyond war and imperialism.  As mentioned, Bruce Sterling comes easily to mind as a peer, as does John LeCarre and his brand of the realpolitik spy novel, meaning Macleod’s transition from outer space to near-future sci-fi is a big success.

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