Monday, 12 April 2010

Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod - classic SciFi

Let’s face it, the political thriller is a predictable breed, its greatest strength of pure readability is derived from the very conventions we have come to expect and – dare we say it – demand from such a genre; conspiracies, misinformation, skulduggery, underhanded political machinations, and so on. So many novelists in recent years have profited so handsomely in this field; Tom Clancy, Dan Brown and Fredrick Forsyth, being at the very tip of this humungous and ship-threatening iceberg.

Odd, then, that it should be these very conventions that are, arguably, The Execution Channel's greatest downfall, the latest offering from Scottish Sci-Fi powerhouse Ken MacLeod. Such a pity as, on the surface, this novel has so much more going for it than, say, the clumsily written novels of Dan Brown or the technobabble heavy tomes of Mr Clancy.

The plot takes those tried-and-tested thriller favourites – terrorist attacks on military and civilian targets, the world pushed to the brink of World War III, conspiracy theories, spies – and gives them a refreshing little Sci-Fi spin. Set in a Britain of the near future where the internet and 24 hour news channels are uploaded directly to our mobile phones; a constant wall of white noise that shapes, controls and dominates our lives. Add to this mix a group of peace demonstrators trying to prevent the world from plunging into nuclear Armageddon, secret government organisations with hidden agendas, a French spy and a conspiracy theorist computer nerd and there you have your plot.

The trouble is, after all this is set up in the first few dozen pages of the novel pretty much nothing else happens for the next 200-odd pages. MacLeod liberally shuffles his characters around the story’s landscape, utilising a vast array of transportation (planes, trains and automobiles of various description) as the cast meet up in various remote locations throughout the UK to spend 10 pages dumping vast chunks of exposition upon the reader, before moving them on to begin the whole process again several pages later. To make matters worse each of the principal players (of which there are a fair amount, mind you) have several theories concerning the unfolding crisis, which they all too enthusiastically, and at great length, constantly choose to explain before rejecting and then (frustratingly) decide to revisit again. So many varied and conflicting theories are flying about back and forth between each character in the course of the story that it leaves the reader feeling dazed, confused and more than a little annoyed. It feels as though the characters are merely speaking there minds, thinking out loud, rather than actually trying to infer to the reader that their explanation might, in fact, be the truth behind the attacks. It’s not until the final 30 pages or so from the end of the book that the truth is finally revealed. Sadly, by this time you either find yourself not caring or waiting for one of the other characters to shoot it down with yet another theory of their own!

However, having said all this, there is still much enjoyment to be had from reading The Execution Channel. As usual MacLeod’s prose is sharp, incisive and refreshingly crisp – something we have come to expect and admire from the author since his debut novel The Star Fraction some 12 years ago. The characters which populate this terror-stricken future world are wonderfully detailed and breathtaking in their complexity (like novelist Stephen King, one of MacLeod’s greatest strengths lies in his characters), and, at just a little over the 300 page mark, the novel never threatens to outstay its welcome, but rattles along at a satisfying, attention-friendly pace.

Although not quite this reviewer’s cup of tea, The Execution Channel is without doubt an interesting (if somewhat deeply flawed) exercise into hitherto unexplored territory by a writer who has over the past 12 years, quite deservedly, carved himself an important and well respected little niche in the Sci-Fi genre. No doubt if you are a hardened enthusiast you’ll love it, if on the other hand you’re a Ken MacLeod virgin then you’d probably do better starting with The Star Fraction or Cosmonaut Keep and work your way up from there!

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