Fiction Reviews

Beyond the Hallowed Sky

(2021) Ken MacLeod, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 340pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51479-6


Lakshmi Nayak has invented a faster than light drive, though she does not know it yet. However, she does when she gets a letter seemingly from herself explaining how it works. Yet the maths seems to work. She gives it to a senior colleague to check it out but he advises here to forget it as faster-than-light is impossible. Eventually, she decides to publish it as a flying-a-kite paper. This, though, attracts ridicule and soon she finds herself exiled from academia.

Where did this paper come from? Could it have come from her future self? After all, faster-than-light does imply (from a purely relativistic – non-quantum – perspective) time travel!

Time passes (in the usual, and not the time travel, sense) and then she gets an unexpected offer to build a starship using her principles.

Meanwhile, on a floating station above the clouds of Venus, a government android is on a mission to find out a rival alliance of nations' understanding of a new phenomenon on the planet's inhospitable surface.

In the meantime, an exploration team in caves on a distant world (exo-planet) makes discoveries of its own. There is some sort of intelligence there…

Beyond the Hallowed Sky is the start of a new, hard-ish SF space opera trilogy that grabs you from the off. And the backdrop involves some nifty world-building. We are two-thirds of the way through the 22nd century which is far enough away for there to be significant differences yet close enough that there are sufficient similarities that we might tenuously see how we got from where we are today to there.

Decades of turmoil had culminated in two shocks: the restoration of democracy in the US, and its establishment in much of Europe. There were essentially three groupings:  the Alliance consisting of the Anglosphere less Ireland and Scotland but including India;  the Union, comprising of much of continental Europe with Scotland and Ireland;  and the Co-ordinated States of Russia, China and some of their dependencies.

Yet these human groups were not alone in calling the shots: each grouping had a controlling artificial intelligence capable of much monitoring of citizens…

Trilogies can be tricky things. Each book has to be reasonably self-contained yet progress an overall plot arc, with the final wrapping everything up. This can mean that the middle book – being neither one or the other – is somewhat weak.

With Beyond the Hallowed Sky we do get an intriguing start that certainly holds the reader's attention. Perhaps there is not enough sub-plot resolution for this to work as a standalone but then again there is plenty making you to want to get the next one in the trilogy. What you do get is the bringing together of the build-a-starship, Venus and exo-planet strands, though there are plenty of questions left to be answered and issues to address.  Mercifully, Ken MacLeod does not write overly long books, so the reader does not feel cheated: you get more than enough bangs for your buck. This, and that the man has written a couple of trilogies before, somewhat deftly (most recently Dissidence, Insurgence and Emergence), means that I for one look forward to the two follow-ups. This is thoughtful SF with some great ideas, lightened with the occasional action to keep the blood pumping, and an interesting first contact set-up.  If you know MacLeod, you will be sold: you have this assurance that he is still on form. If you don't, and like the sound of this, then what are you waiting for?


Jonathan Cowie


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