Thursday, 18 November 2010

Newton's Wake by Ken MacLeod

I was asked by the enigmantic zungg about good stand-alone sci fi novels. I'm still in two minds about whether this is good, but it is great fun.

It's kind of hard to know where to start describing Newton's Wake. Best to begin with the idea of singularity, which I've been trying to get my head around. I think it can be described as a moment when technology breaks free from human control. But it also always seems to be about uploading yourself to a central server, and breaking free of biology. In any case, we're always assured when the singularity happens, we'll know about it.

In this book it's called the Hard Rapture. America goes to war, and its war machines are so advanced they become sentient and start uploading people using the internet while irradiating the planet. The machines/uploads then become posthuman, create a network of wormholes across the galaxy, leave a bunch of unfathomable relics a la Roadside Picnic and disappear onto a different plane of existence where, it's suggested, they've made faster than light travel possible in our universe. We're told singularities start coming thick and fast after the first one's reached.

Okay, that's just the background. The actual plot concerns interstellar Glaswegian gangsters, folk singers brought back from the dead and the political rehabilition of Leonid Breshnev. But it doesn't entirely work, and I'm not sure why. I like the focus on unusual characters, and the way he looks at the world of art and fashion as well as politics and science, but I never got the feel that this was a real universe. MacLeod's ambitious for trying to tell a big story in one normal sized book, but perhaps he does need three massive breeze blocks like Peter F Hamilton. And if you're a sucker for space communists, then there's lots to enjoy.

I've accidently started three books at the same time. Koba the Dread by Martin Amis about Stalin, on audiobook Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks and the aforementioned Roadside Picnic on my phone - something which could be very handy if I can get used to reading the little screen.


Anonymous said...

Sounds completely wacko. I read Koba the Dread and thought it was decent, basically a Stalin primer with the entertaining addition of Amis railing against leftist apologists.

Joe said...

I'm always a fan of sticking it to leftist apologist. I've got The First Circle waiting to be read on my bookshelf, but I thought this would be an easier prospect.

Bryce said...

I thought you read Consider Phlebas before... and didn't understand it at all/thought the plot was different to me when we discussed it. Or was that a different Iain M Banks one?

Joe said...

That was the Algebraist I think - I couldn't remember about the gas giant bits being in "deep time". I have read Phlebas before as well though. Turns out it's really good. I can never remember what happens in books, which is one reason I wanted to do a blog.

Ed said...

Never read any of Banks' sci fi. Big fan of his non sci-fi stuff though - up to and including Complicity anyway.

Anonymous said...

Yeah Ed, I've also noty read his scifi books. I've read five Banks novels and this is how I rank them:

1. The Bridge - top quality psychorama.
2. Wasp Factory - young dumb and full of cum.
3. Crow Road and Whit - both had some good writing but irritatingly earnest protagonists and both are so immersed in the 80's they feel very dated already.
4. The Business - Banks phoning it in - really appalling.

Phlebas sounds good, I'll put it on my list.

Joe said...

I agree with you rundown zungg. I'd forgotten about the bridge - the city and the kingdom etc. I may dig that out and re-read. Also remember enjoying espidair st, but don't know if that'll still stand up.

The only recent one I've enjoyed is steep approach to garbadale but it's not a million miles from crow road. Walking distance, in fact.

His latest - transition - is sci fi without the m. Skipping between dimensions, wtc still standing, airships etc. I've heard it really doesn't work and seems to be in the vein of the appalling business. Not to worry, there's a new culture novel out!

Ed said...

Funnily enough, you haven't mentioned my favourites - Walking On Glass, Complicity and Canal Dreams. All display aspects of Banks at his most imaginative for me.

I enjoyed Crow Road too, but I agree there's a certain whiff of nostalgia about it. Steep Approach I felt lacked the depth of characterization and sense of place that Crow Road has - Banks on auto-pilot, which he has been since Whit. The Business was indeed awful.

Joe said...

I had to look up the plots there - yes, Walking on Glass was good, but I didn't enjoy it quite as much as the Bridge, and there were similarities. Complicity's also pretty great. From the synopsis I don't thing I've read Canal Dreams.

Ed said...

Canal Dreams is Banks at his sickest, basically.

Joe said...

I'm juggling books about Stalin and Myra Hindley. Sickness I've got covered.

Ed said...

Just finished reading Whit and I have to say it features probably the most irritating protagonist ever (from anything written in the 20th Century or after at least). I'm sure that's Bank's intention - to satirize the blinkered idiocy of cultists - but he gives Isis Whit a turn of phrase that is ridiculously verbose and archaic and creates one of the most sanctimonious, infuriating characters in literary history - almost on a par with Emma. Actually there is more than a whiff of the Jane Austen about Whit. Give me Crow Road any day.