Fiction Reviews


(2014) Ken MacLeod, Orbit, £19.99, hrdbk, 403pp, ISBN 978-1-841-49941-3


Ryan ('Sinky') Sinclair and his school friend Calum take a break from revising for their exams going for a walk on the hillside overlooking the Firth of Clyde, west of Glasgow. They leave their mobile phones with their, still revising, school chums so that their respective parents would not know (via geo-positioning app.) they were bunking off. Below in the town the security forces were out monitoring minor social disobedience only evidenced by the smell of burning tyres. Soon they were lost in the mist, and that is when it happened. A bright sphere flew down from the sky. Ryan and Calum ran but it did no good: the pair were knocked unconscious.

The two came round sometime later not far away in an area of burnt vegetation, but it was only after – in the night – that Ryan got his dream. It was a nightmare in which he awoke in what was presumably a UFO with two space people talking to him…

Descent is set in a not too distant future: a time of economic recession with a seemingly beneficial but authoritarian state in which radical opposition is kept out of the media and the threat of terrorism never far away. Yet, for Ryan the question is how come, in a time where surveillance is common place, there was no report of the strange, unidentified aircraft in the sky, especially given that the authorities had been quick to get a clean-up team to the burnt area on the hillside where Calum and Ryan had been 'taken'? And who was the mysterious Reverend Baxter who comes calling on Ryan: was he one of the iconic men in black?

Descent follows Ryan through his life as he leaves school, goes to university and finally ends up a science blogger. His school friend Calum, though very much going his own way, is never far and the two see each other from time to time. In the mean time the state reorganises itself and the economy; it is a revolution from within. Prosperity follows, so taking the wind out of the former radical opposition who promptly cease their political activities with their members moving into commerce to take advantage of the economic boom. Meanwhile, with advancing technology, everyone can now participate in the surveillance society. And yet, throughout his life the mysterious Mr Baxter makes occasional appearances not to mention his later girlfriend's interest in genetics and a possible human speciation event taking place…

Ken MacLeod is once again, as he was with his last novel Intrusion, in political mode. This time this is a 'truth is out there' novel very much near The X-Files territory. What exactly is going on?

And, once again, this is a story very well told. And so it should be, not just because MacLeod is an excellent writer – he is – but because he has set this novel in his home territory of the Clyde-Forth rift valley. Indeed that part of the world has recent SF writer provenance, it also being the home to the recently departed Iain Banks to whom this novel is dedicated.

Descent comes to a conclusion with two or three potential end-points. This is something with which I usually have no problem: the reader can pick their favourite. Yet books' endings, like their beginnings, are important. The end of a good book is something with which I approach with a miscible mixture of pleasure and sadness. Pleasure, because I enjoy reading good books, and sadness, because I hate them coming to end. But in this case Ken soured my final moments with one of his endings being decidedly SF-naff to the extent it borders on being literary cheese: a mild, plastic cheddar at that. A huge shame as the novel is otherwise so strong, the reading of it such a pleasure, that it truly did not need an SF-explains-all, or a 'there-is-more-to-life-and-the-universe-that-meets-the-eye' moment: for goodness sake Ken, leave that to 'B'-movies (and don't get me wrong, I love 'B'-movies but McLeod's work – including this novel – is better than that). Fortunately, we only get a couple of pages of this off-piste twaddle even if, alas, it came at a critical time. But please don't let this put you off. The meat of this book is unravelling a finely crafted package of who stands for whom in a coming of political age tale. And, like much of good SF, it is very relevant to today with its largely irrelevant-to-the-public Holyrood and Westminster bubble (or Capitol Hill if you are Stateside) machinations, or our early 21st century very public cyber chat, or surveillance monitoring, or economic crises that individually let alone together make us wonder who is in charge (if anyone really is), let alone who should be in charge? This is X-Files meets William Gibson doing a Kim Stanley Robinson; a very much hard to beat combination. Recommended.

Reverend, or is that scientist, or Parliamentary lobbyist Jonathan Cowie

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