The Sky Road
by Ken MacLeod
A book review by Mark L. Olson
Orbit, 1999, 291 pp, £16.99, Tor, 2000, $24.95
Another marvelous book by Ken MacLeod!
The Sky Road fits - in an interesting way - into the general future history MacLeod used in three other books, The Cassini Division, The Stone Canal, and Star Fraction, and there are a number of people, events, and places in common.
Briefly, the future history has the early 21st century dominated by a US-led alliance trying to keep a lid on an increasingly fragmented world -- many governments follow the Soviet Union into dissolution, leaving anarchy over most of Asia and elsewhere. At the same time, the Internet and the computer revolution accelerate and a Vingeian Singularity looks likely.
In fact, there are three Singularities brewing, two of them Vingeian. The two classical Vingeian singularities are the one growing out of the Internet -- the world (that part which hasn't collapsed into anarchy, that is) is tied more and more closely together and e-commerce proves stronger than any other ties, leaving all societies utterly and completely market-driven. (Jane's has dropped old-fashioned publications like Jane's Fighting Ships in favor of Jane's Market Forces -- few conflicts are decided by mere physical force any more.) The world is rapidly changing to become stranger that we can understand.
The other classical Vingeian singularity is happening in space. While near-Earth space is hugely crowded with machines, weapons, and people, man has not spread beyond there. A SF-derived band of space fanatics, however, is determined to head to the stars and is busy building the hardware up in L5 to go interplanetary and eventually interstellar - and to download themselves into AIs to make it easier.
A third singularity is sweeping across Asia, the Sheenisov, a weird cryptorandian-libertario-communist (!) movement which sprung up in Korea when China, and both Koreas dissolved, is slowly conquering Asia. They don't use computers - at least they don't use electronic computers - they don't deal with anyone else and they seem unstoppable. Life in the Sheenisov sphere is life after a different kind of singularity.
Maya Godwin, a lesser player in The Stone Canal where she and Jonathan Wilde were lovers, is the head of the International Scientific and Technical Worker's Soviet, a tiny quasi-government set up by scientists and engineers after Russia's collapse to control the Baikonur space launch site -- and its store of nuclear weapons. Maya has made a go of the ISTWS by marketing time-shared deterrence -- for a price, the ISTWS will guarantee to nuke anyone who invades one of its clients. Since the world is otherwise disarmed, this is a potent threat.
The story is told in alternating chapters. Even chapters are in the 2040s and tell Maya's story, while odd chapters are set perhaps 500 years later in a semi-utopian world which has somehow avoided the impending singularities and has forged a new, quiet, rather pleasant life. This part of the story is set just north of Glasgow where a spaceship is being constructed, the first to be built in centuries.
As we go on, we learn that when the old civilization fell, some things were saved: cheap, portable fusion power, for example, while other things (like computers, television and anything which might again lead towards dreaded Singularity) are not only gone but regarded as dangerous Black knowledge.
Clovis colha Gree (that's his name) is a young history grad student earning his living by doing welding work on the Ship. (It's made like an ocean-liner out of heavy steel plate -- with unlimited fusion power weight isn't an issue.) He runs into a tinker (an itinerant programmer) named Merrial, falls for her, and gets involved in her quest to recover records associated with Maya Godwin -- who we learn is revered the world over as The Deliverer, who apparently saved the world from the Singularity.
There are some interesting twists in the story and I won't detail them.
The story is well-told, exciting, a good love story, and very believable -- had I but known, it would have been right up there with A Deepness in the Sky at the top of my Hugo list for 1999. With the recent extension of eligibility for British books, I will certainly nominate it for 2000.
Besides being a damn fine story, what makes it especially interesting is that it only sort of fits into the future of The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division. The 2040s chapters -- all but the last, that is -- seem to mesh perfectly with the other books, but at the end, Maya takes a decisive step, aborts all of the impending singularities, and creates the pastoral near-utopia we see five hundred years later in the odd-numbered chapters.
So. The even-numbered chapters are in the post-Singularity universe of The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division, but the odd-numbered chapters (and the last even-numbered chapter) are in an alternate universe with no Singularity.
Neat, really. And a great story, too.
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