Bewildering Stories

Change the color of the text to:

Change the color of the background to:

review: Ken MacLeod, The Star Fraction

by David Norris

Where do we start with this one, Ken MacLeod’s first novel? (First published: 1995) The main characters are Moh Kohn (security mercenary), Janis Taine (scientist) and Jordan Brown (economist/trader in a fundamentalist enclave in London). The novel is set in Great Britain in the middle decades of this century, after a revolution that turns the U.K. into a republic, World War III and the restoration of the monarchy (with the help of the U.S. military and the U.N.). Stir in a substantial dose of politics (particularly of the left), fundamentalist Green terrorism, another revolution, smartguns, Stasis (think of Gibson’s Turing police, concerned with deep technology in general), self-propagating software all over the place (including Kohn’s brain), a Space Defense force and lots of other goodies and you have a story that is gripping and, to me at least, obscurely moving.

Through the eyes mainly of Kohn, Taine and Brown we see the events leading up to the second revolution and the establishment of a new world order. Kohn, touting for business, meets Taine, whose lab has just been raided by an anti-tech group. Later, Taine is visited by agents of Stasis. Scared, she calls Kohn’s collective, looking for protection. Kohn picks up the job and takes her to the collective in an enclave (Norlonto, “North London Town”) in a politically fractured London.

Meanwhile Brown, selling and buying creationist-approved goods, is bribed by a mythical program called the Black Plan to carry out a transaction for it. He picks up his reward and, richer by long way, he goes home, to find that his parents have discovered his hoard of forbidden books (Darwin, Sagan, Asimov, etc.) and his diary. He takes offence and, pausing only to pack his library, heads from fundamentalism into freedom in, of course, Norlonto.

Kohn and Taine link up with Brown after a fortuitous meeting in a bar and set to work to find out what they can about Kohn’s flashback and missing memory problems, worldwide system crashes and the Black Plan. They are pursued, physically and in the net, by agents of Stasis, the Carbon Life Alliance (paranoid about AI) and the head of security of Brown’s erstwhile stamping ground.

>From here the pace intensifies. Kohn, in a spot of trouble, has to claim the protection of the Army of the New Republic (ANR), the military wing of the remnants of the Republic that existed between revolution and Restoration, and to which he is morally committed, and he and Taine, still pursued, are sent to comparative safety in Scotland. Meanwhile Brown is broadcasting against fundamentalism, working the market to make money for Kohn’s collective and trying to trace the Black Plan and its possible links with the ANR.

In the wider world, interesting times are ahead. Conflicts are escalating, worldwide net crashes occur, the powers that be are worried about AI’s in the net and are thinking of destroying the datasphere with electromagnetic pulses (nukes!) and the ANR is contemplating a “final” offensive.

I don’t want to spoil the fun for those who have yet to read it, so I’ll stop with the detail there. Some of our protagonists die, some get married, Kohn’s gun comes in very useful in a variety of ways, we find out what was in his head and what his programmer father had to do with it, nasty things happen to some dogs and we are told what the Black Plan is.

I’ve had to leave a lot out. If you like the look of the components and don’t mind having to concentrate on several interleaving storylines with PoV changes and flashbacks, have a look: you could find it very rewarding.

The Star Fraction is the first of a group of four novels, the others being The Stone Canal (1996), The Cassini Division (1998) and The Sky Road (1999). Each can be read on its own and enjoyed, but the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. Read them all, ideally in publication order, and be impressed.

Copyright © 2003 by David Norris