by Peter Bjorn Perls
Ken MacLeod is one of the better Science Fiction authors of this day. He is best known, I think, for his “Fall Revolution” quarilogy consisting of the books The Star Fraction, The Sky Road, The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division, which were released between 1995 and 1999, in which he manages to produce a fantastically fresh blend of science fiction and political exploration, with an unexpected quality: It does not preach ideology. (I will review his other works at a later time).
Political science fiction is the staple of MacLeod, and The Execution Channel continues on that path. In this, the book does not take place in 2040 and onwards, but quite a bit closer to our current point in time. Even though no “present day” dates are mentioned, by my reckoning it takes place just before 2020.
The setting is an Earth where the War on Terror rages on with no end in sight, this time, the Coalition peace keepers moved North from Afghanistan into central Asia on the nexus between several factions and states: Tien Shan, squeezed between Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Closer to home, with the pace of technological progress continuing apace (and i might add, a continually deteriorating degree of accountability of the powers that be), the fact of life circa 2020 in England, and presumably much of the world, is video surveillance of all roads and street corners, and mobile phones being so cheap that they have reached the point of disposability (paid for with Euros), but society still seems dominated by use of automotive transportation and the associated fossil fuel use. The US has an increased presence in Britain, it seems, though mostly confined to the military bases around the country. Everything else is much the same, even the cultural/religious/racial tensions in the ghettos, (in the UK, notably Bradford), and Google is still the centerpiece in people’s life on the internet.
Where the world differs from What We Know is that the Cold War is back of sorts: Russia and China are both rising back to superpower status, and they are anti-Western with a vengeance. The latter has aligned itself with North Korea, the former with… France.
The wellspring of the difference between this world and the one we know, is (Ken really chose his ideas tongue-in-cheek!) the contested US Election of 2000. Yes, G.W. Bush never made it to office – Al Gore did. In 2001 when Al is at work, a memo lands on his desk, stating that Al Queda intends to strike the US, so he goes into action and launches a volley of cruise missiles at Afghanistan. The result is lots of civilian casualties, and a popular backlash which in the story is what galvanizes the AQ to perform the 9/11 attacks. All which this goes on with Gore becoming a Democratic War President, Bush is relegated to authoring a book about the foolishness of US military adventures in foreign countries. With this digression I’m pointing out that MacLeod has a talent for making political satire from juxtapositions and keen observations of facts of history and ideology that will make you laugh out loudly. With the repeated pokes at vocal political groups (particularly those that tend to whine loudly), MacLeod uses both wit and sarcasm to full effect.
The core of the dramatis personae is the Travis family: The son Alec in the peacekeeping forces in Central Asia, the daughter Roisin who is a peacenik that as the novel takes off, has spent the last 6 months in a peace protest camp outside a Scottish air force base (RAF Leuchars, north of Edinburgh), and the father, James, is a government software contractor with ties to foreign intelligence agencies. The barrel of blackpowder couldn’t be more obvious!
What happens on what is later termed the 5/5 attack (the morning the 5th of May, 2000-something), is that the Leuchars base is hit by a low yield nuclear weapon. Roisin is tipped off of this by her brother (who despite being separated from his family by thousands of kilometers is still tied into the story) flees with the fellow peace protesters, and then it all starts: Britain is struck by a volley of bombings on important infrastructure points, and from there on, the ball rolls; international tension, since the reasoning goes that it’s one of the other nuclear powers that did it, and domestic chaos as the state comes down on everyone who gets out of line, at the same time as popular suspicion Al Queda intervention results in attacks on Muslims all over Britain. Yep, MacLeod certainly knows what contemporary strings to play.
The two dark horses of the story are: First, that the governments of the world use farfetched conspiracy theories to distract political dissenters toward unproductive pursuits (namely UFO scheming instead of aiming for the unaccountable political powers, which is MacLeod’s stab at the conspiracy buffs), second, that these governments also run secret detention centers around the world (which is already commonplace knowledge) where brutal executions take place, and somehow footage from these executions make it to the public on a broadcast channel that gives the book its title: The Execution Channel. In MacLeod’s world, you don’t have to go to 4chan.org anymore for your filth and atrocities, it’s right on your TV set!
Now, closing on the verdict of the book. Is it any good? My answer is that that It Depends.
I got it in the mail yesterday morning, and after having performed the chores of the day, I started reading it in the late afternoon. In doing so, I surprised myself by doing something I haven’t done, by my count, in 13 years: I read a book cover-to-cover in under a day, more specifically in under 13 hours, including dinner, two bathroom breaks, a shower, checking my email once, and a 15 minute rest. The book is a page-turner is the real sense of the word, and even though it is not that long (some 360 pages), the feat of blazing through it makes me wonder, writing this.
The book IS good, very much so. The blend of science fiction and fringe politics with a plausible near-future descent into dystopia is dynamite, and MacLeod knows how to execute it well. But here comes the caveat: It is the first 300 or so pages are good, whereafter the terrible happens: The story fizzes out, and plods along with late story development (decay may be a better word for it, though) of little substance, and to me it was as if MacLeod throws so much stuff into his literary blender that it becomes an uninteresting gray smudge, where only the earlier parts of the book pressures you on the back to keep on reading. I’ll have to agree completely with a number of Amazon UK reviewers: The last few (six, to be precise) pages of the book drops it all on the floor with the introduction of a non sequitur and of such silliness that it’ll make you moan loudly. (I know that I did.)
On closing the book after 4 o’clock in the morning, I got the feeling that Ken MacLeod had performed, in the terms of the British, a massive piss take on his readers. That, or he ran out of ideas at page 330, and had a ghostwriter with no feel for the story and no sense of remorse in butchering the potential of it all, finish it for him. A T.S. Elliot quote on the book ending here would be appropriate.
So, to repeat, if the book is good overall depends, on whether you tear out the last 60 pages of it before you read it, and dream up your own ending. If you do, it’s just about a 5-star read. Including the ending into the verdict, I wouldn’t even rate the book mediocre, but instead poor.
Of criticism of the story before the abysmal finish, I can offer some. For example, the title topic of the book, the Execution Channel, only has a significant presence early in the book, and after the first fourth or so, it disappears from view, only to make a single significant reappearance toward the end. I won’t go into spoilers, but suffice to say that the author wasted a massive potential story element by not using what is drives the Execution Channel. This is unforgivable.
Second, while the portrayal of the apprehension of one of the book’s characters on Terrorism charges makes the small hairs at the back of your neck stand up, the long-run portrayal of the government agents that do this and other things, becomes far too monotonous and in the end (especially the aforementioned dreadful last 50-60 pages) they appear like robotic constructs that just keep doing what they’ve always done to finish off the story (even though the idea the some government employees are unfeeling automatons may be appropriate, but I digress…).
So. If you are already a MacLeod fan, they book is worthwhile reading, but to repeat, beware the ending. As for me, i’ll think twice about buying his books in the future. As much as I want the intensity and intricacy of his works of the 90’s to keep on coming, I’m afraid that a book like the one reviewed here signals that he has is past his peak, and do no care enough about the stories (and thus, his readers) he weave, to round it off in a graceful manner that doesn’t insult the audience.