Fiction Reviews

Beyond the Reach of Earth

(2023) Ken MacLeod, Orbit, £9.99, pbk, 339pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51480-2


This is the second novel in the 'Lightspeed' trilogy following Beyond the Hallowed Sky with Beyond the Light Horizon to come.

This is space opera: almost, if not in fact, widescreen space opera with a substantive interstellar, and not just interplanetary, dimension. It is part of a trilogy that, so far, demonstrates that MacLeod is still an author with much to give and to tantalise his readers.

From the first book in the trilogy, it is roughly half a century in the future: near enough to the present to be broadly similar, but far enough in the future for there to be some striking differences. These include the development of artificial intelligence to both autonomous and state controlling levels. (Here, it is really worthwhile remembering that when he was writing the first novel (in 2020) that the current explosion in artificial intelligence (AI) only really took off a couple of years later in the summer of 2022 even if major AI issues came to the fore with legal and labour disputes in 2023 (word search 'artificial intelligence' here): MacLeod definitely has a knack for discerning which way the wind blows.

On the political front – and MacLeod is one for a political front – the Earth as seen some turmoil. Decades of which has 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. Here, AI seems to play a role in – not it would 'appear' in governing but in – controlling states in partnership with their respective ruling elites.

But the main SFnal trope driving the first book is the discovery of faster-than-light (FTL) travel: a kind of jump drive that can even be fitted to submarines. This covertly takes some factions of the three leading state alliances to the stars. But word of this breakthrough gets out and soon there is a movement to colonise a newly discovered world. This new world has been terraformed, but not by humanity and so the first novel includes a first contact element into an already, delightfully heady mix.

If you find all this confusing, don't worry it is, but fret not, the first novel makes sense. Very helpfully, this second novel of the trilogy includes an incredibly useful, four-page summary of the first book and here, valuably, names are in capital letters and so if you need to catch up on a particular character it really is easy to do so by scanning and skipping to the relevant paragraph. What this does mean is that you could – in theory – jump into this trilogy with this second novel, but I really wouldn't recommend it: go back and get the first book with the assurance that the second is as engaging and that MacLeod is firmly on form.

Beyond the Reach of Earth sees the 'Black Horizon' group who covertly began exploring the stars get considered as a rogue covert operation by the three international alliance groups (that spawned the 'Black Horizon' in the first place). Their ships are tracked and encouraged to come in from the cold by their respective international groups. Meanwhile, we begin to learn more about the alien Fermi and, critically, the true nature of the FTL jump drive that has unleashed humanity on the stars…

I am, not going to say more at this point so as to avoid spoilers. Nor am I going to speculate about the likely direction the third, final book in the trilogy – Beyond the Light Horizon – will take: there is so much going on that plenty of interesting avenues spring to mind and so I eagerly await this last offering.

Looking at the broad sweep of the SF landscape over the decades, the late 20th and early 21st century space opera has seen a sort of British-led renaissance with the likes of folk such as Paul McAuley, Iain Banks, Alastair Reynolds and arguably Stephen Baxter and more recently Adrian Tchaikovsky. Ken MacLeod is, and has been, most firmly in this band and is among those that continue to lead the new space opera charge.

Jonathan Cowie


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