Ellen May Ngewthu is a soldier and leader of the Cassini Division, the elite defence force of the utopian Solar Union. Here in the twenty-fourth century, the forts of the Division, in orbit around Jupiter, are the front line in humanity's long standoff with the unknowable post-humans godlike beings descended from the men and women who transformed themselves with high technology centuries ago. The post-humans' capacities are unknown… but we know they disintegrated Ganymede, we know they punched a wormhole into Jovian space, and we know that the very surface of the solar system's largest planet has been altered by them. Worse, we know that they have been bombarding the inner solar system with powerful data viruses for generations. Now Ellen has a plan to rid humanity of this threat once and for all. But she needs to convince others to mistrust the post-humans as much as she does. In the process, much will be revealed - about history, about power, and about what it is to be human.
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This was my first Ken Macleod book; I did not read the previous volumes in the “Fall Revolution” series because there were a number of bad reviews, and I understood that the volumes were more or less stand-alone. I’m happy to say that this is true, and that if you haven’t read the other books, you’ll have little trouble following what’s going on. There are many references to the Fall Revolution series’ fictional history, but most of them are explained or can be understood through context. I felt intrigued and curious about the previous two books, but by no means was I confused without them.
So, a lot of people have complained about Ken Macleod’s politics in the reviews of read of much of his work. Let me say this: if you don’t like political philosophizing in your science fiction, A) why are you reading science fiction at all? and B) you probably won’t enjoy this book. For the rest of us, this is a wonderfully imaginative and compelling presentation of a society with not only futuristic technology, but social ideas as well. I always wondered how the society of Star Trek actually worked, without money and all, and the shows have never really expounded on it. This book does: it presents a socialist utopia and explains how it came to be and how it works in practice, down to the very philosophical underpinnings that make it work. Fascinating stuff. I didn’t feel the book was an angry attack on capitalism, but more of an extrapolation of ideas to their theoretical conclusions. The socialist society isn’t perfect, and even as a socialistic progressive, I found myself uncomfortable with some of the ideas that make it up. Even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist, this book is worth reading to see what the “other side” thinks, and what its hopes and dreams are.
The narrative is brisk, with tight pacing and well-timed reveals of information. Macleod writes strong dialogue and excellent descriptions. He has a sarcastic bent to his writing, as well as a solid grounding in how people actually act, think, and talk. The story is told from the first person perspective, by a woman who is a veteran of the revolutions that led to the socialist utopia, and an agent of the Cassini Division, a group of warriors who keep watch over a colony of posthumans on Jupiter. She’s a great character, wry, intelligent, capable, self-assured. She has several moments of vulnerability, but overall she’s a forceful, relentless protagonist. The supporting characters are less fleshed out, and they take a back seat toward the end of the novel, but they are very distinct.
The story is well-told, coherent, and awe-inspiring. This is a novel about ideas, as I said above, and Macleod touches on many touchstones of sci fi, such as the technological singularity, posthumans, AI, and the question of what defines “human” at all. Another strong theme is the nature of ideology in forming human consciousness and identity. I highly recommend this book. It’s very modern sci fi and relevant to our world. Macleod is a talented storyteller and has created a world worth staying in. There are a few sci fi “universes” I’ve read that I wish were, or would be, real, that humanity would aspire to in the fullness of time. This book’s presentation of the future is one of those. Believable, relatable, yet fantastic enough to inspire awe and hope. What else is sci fi for, if not that?
A word on the narrator: she does an excellent job on this book. Her pixie-like voice grew on me over the course of the story. She does excellent dialogue, acting out the lines rather than just reciting them. She has a strong British accent, but that only enhanced her performance to me. I would gladly listen to her again.