The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod


The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod

Published by Orbit, March 2008

ISBN: 9781841493497


370 pages plus interview extra


Review by Hobbit / Mark Yon


With this book, Ken, usually known for his broad space operas (Cosmonaut Keep, Newton’s Wake), takes a left turn into Stross territory and produces a more-mainstream near-future thriller.


James Travis, is a worker at a software company, who also from time to time helps out the French secret service. His daughter, Roisin, is at a peace protest camp just outside an RAF base at Leuchars, Scotland, His son, Jack, is serving in the British Army in Iranian Kurdistan. An explosion at the RAF base puts both Travis and Roisin on the run, and Jack under interrogation. At the same time, Jeff Paulson is an American undercover agent in charge of disinformation in the UK, putting false information out to sources on the Internet and creating rumours to disguise real events for the sake of national and international security.


In the United States, Mark Dark runs an internet Web site which aims to find the truth amongst the disinformation, and discuss amongst a growing global network. He soon finds out that the destructive events in the UK may be part of a major cover up, disguising something that may be even less palatable than global terrorism. 


So far, so non-SF. In fact, based on such a description, this could be a Tom Clancy or an Orson Scott Card novel. However, as the events become clearer, things very subtly take on a more SF slant. The explosion at Leuchars, at first thought to be nuclear, seems to be a from a new top secret particle beam weapon being unloaded at the base. This is not nuclear powered, but instead taps into energy created by anomalies in the Planck Shift, something which cosmologists have debated for years. As the tale develops, things become increasingly not what you expect.


With almost Kafkaian quickness, the novel sets off at a fast pace and then accelerates. Travis heads north to try and meet his daughter through a bleakly dystopian Britain; Roisin, in order to pass on her information, uses her membership of the Socialist party to spread the word; Jack and his colleagues watch everything.


However what makes this work is that, like Charles Stross’ Halting State, Ken produces a frighteningly possible vision of the future. (Though this is not actually our future, as subtle changes are drip-fed through the plot.)


Though we no longer have a Cold War, espionage is still a persuasive influence in this world, but a much subtler one. Surveillance cultures, international terrorism and the Execution Channel (a daily TV update on executions around the world) are logically extrapolated ahead, but also importantly intertwined with those nuggets of reality necessary to ground the novel in some semblance of reality – Tesco’s supermarkets, the Sun newspaper, Google, George Bush, 9/11, 7/7. (We have yet to see if a female US President will come to pass, though.)

Such elements of normality thus make the ending more fantastical: an absolutely-no-doubt SF ending, which I suspect some will either like or hate. Me, I was partly appreciative at a nod to an SF great (which I’m not going to give away here!) but also a little disappointed that after such a careful build-up through the book, the ending seemed to be a little bit of a let down.


Another area that may be disappointing to some readers is the political angle exhibited here. This is clearly a political thriller, peppered with references to political people, groups and events. Whilst Ken’s previous novels have often had political stances marbled (if not to say indelibly stamped) through their narrative, here the politics of today (or near-today), even though they are in a slightly different world, are given position front-stage.


A little strangely, this seemed to me, in places, a very angry book, highlighting the consequences of an ineffectual mass seemingly indifferent to small, yet hugely important, social changes. The outspoken, controversial viewpoints given here may not be liked by everyone.


This may be the book’s weakness for some. The book deftly treads the line between entertainment and rant, but the characterisation used to promote the ideas could be a little unappealing. Many of the characters have agendas, but at times little depth beyond that. However it may be that the book tries to give a breadth of viewpoint rather than a depth of individual here. The book is fiercely intelligent and crackles with crisp dialogue, though some may see the dialogue in places as speech-making rather than naturalistic.  (Think of my old analogy of Dawson’s Creek, for example.)


However, on the whole these are minor quibbles.


For those who enjoyed Stross’ Halting State, this novel is a very interesting counterpoint. Similar in style and tone to Stross (and indeed, Ken not only thanks Charles for his assistance whilst writing this one but also has an extract from Halting State at the back of the book) the narrative dazzles with its use of research, dropped in throughout, and its political savvy-ness.


In an enlightening interview at the end of the book, Ken admits to reading lots of spy-writer John le Carre whilst writing this; and it shows. As Charlie Stross homages Len Deighton in his Bob Howard novels, Ken respects le Carre. And like le Carre, (or Stross) this is engaging, intelligent and complex. Not to mention brilliant.


Contemporary and SF, this should gain Ken a lot of admiration from people who are not aware of his other SF books. Perhaps this is Ken’s equivalent of an Iain Banks, rather than an Iain M. Banks’, novel. With justice, it should gain him as much respect.


Mark Yon / Hobbit, February 2008

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