NESFA Members' Reviews

coverDark Light

by Ken MacLeod

A book review by Mark L. Olson

Tor, January 2002, 271 pp, $24.95

I was fortunate enough to get a galley of this book, the sequel to the excellent Cosmonaut Keep, and it is a worthy successor.

In Cosmonaut Keep, we learn that the universe teems with intelligent life, but it's all based on something like colonies of bacteria living in comet nuclei and asteroids. These colonies consist of trillions of hyper-intelligent individuals somehow also bound together as a single entity. They're known as the gods.

While the gods are ubiquitous and fill the galaxy - individual stars' Oort clouds of comet nuclei interpenetrate - planet-based life like our own is very rare. Earth is one of the very few planets to have evolved it.

In the 2030s Mankind first contacted the gods in the Solar System and were given a space drive. The drive allows a speed-of-light jump which takes no time to the people in the ship, but which seems to move at lightspeed to people outside. (If you jump to Alpha Centauri and back, it seems like no time to a passenger, but when he arrives back on Earth, 8.6 years have elapsed.)

In Cosmonaut Keep a group of EU Cosmonauts find their ship jumping out of control and they discover that they have arrived in the Second Sphere, a 200-lightyear-in-diameter region colonized by humans, other hominids, Grays, and Krakens. It seems that the gods, for whatever reasons, have been transplanting intelligent beings from Earth to the Second Sphere for a very long time. The Grays are the intelligent descendents of dinosaurs, the Kraken are intelligent descendents of the Terrestrial squid and the various other hominids were kidnapped from Earth by Grays working for the gods.

The Krakens are the spaceship bosses, and provide - for pay - transport for Grays and Humans. The Humans are all part of Nova Babylonia which has existed for 3000 or so years. It was founded as a civilization by Babylonians, but it is mostly Roman in its traditions. (All of the humans had been kidnapped from Earth at various times.)

Nova Babylonia is held together by trader families who travel in kraken ships, making 200-400 years trading trips (which take only a few years subjective time). The whole trading empire is backward by our standards. They have many advanced goods, but very little understanding of them since their culture never had a scientific revolution.

The action in Dark Light takes place on Croatan, a planet settled by hominids, Grays and two batches of modern humans, one evidently kidnapped from pre-historic barbarians of Northern Europe, and the other from the first failed English Virginia colony.

The arrival of the EU cosmonauts is now 200 years past (though they are mostly still alive due to their anti-aging treatment) and the knowledge they brought has ignited a scientific revolution on Croatan and Mingulay (the planet where the EU cosmonauts arrived at and where their descendents mostly still live.)

There are two societies that matter on Croatan, the Vale and Rawlinston. The Vale is people by the blond savages who live in a rather fantastic neolithic culture which builds man-carrying balloons and hang-gliders, and conducts some aerial commerce with Rawlinston. Their social structure is rather odd (men do all outdoor work, and women do all indoor work, but only most 'women' are female, and only most 'men' are male.) Typical MacLeod political playfulness.

Rawlinston is a pure democracy where the town is run by neighborhood assemblies. Rawlinston's politics are a center of the story and are very well done and honestly done. (One of the more amusing side-stories is how one of the cosmonauts who was a card-carrying Communist from the EU just can't help subverting Rawliston's extreme democracy by setting up a local Party.)

The key item in this book is the discovery by the main characters that the gods are not of one mind and, in fact, appear to be in sometimes-violent conflict and may be planning to use Humans, Grays, Krakens, and other planet-born species as pawns in their wars.

A great story!

See also my reviews of other Ken MacLeod books: Engine City, Cosmonaut Keep, The Cassini Division,. The Sky Road, The Stone Canal, Dark Light, The Human Front

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