NESFA Members' Reviews

Engine City

by Ken MacLeod

A book review by Mark L. Olson

Chilton Books, 2003, 304 pp, $24.95.

Engine City is the third book of a trilogy which began with Cosmonaut Keep, and continued with Dark Light. Sadly, the first book remains by far the best of the three.

The trilogy's world is quite inventive: The universe is packed to the gills with intelligent life, 99.999% of it being colonies of nano bacteria in chondritic asteroids and comet nuclei. These colonies are hyper-intelligent and a single comet may harbor billions of them – and there are hundreds of thousands comets and asteroids in each solar system. Humans and other forms of macroscopic life are minor, minor, minor components of intelligent life in the universe, and refer to the nano-bacterial colonies as "the gods".

In the middle of this century mankind makes contact with the gods and one spaceship is given a light-speed drive by one of the gods. When they try it out, they discover that it has taken them clear across the galaxy (on a one-way trip – 100,000 years have passed on Earth while they traveled even though it seemed to take no time to them) to a region known as the Second Sphere. The Second Sphere is inhabited by humans abducted from Earth all though its history by the Saurs, a race of uplifted dinosaurs who moved to the Second Sphere long ago, but whose remnants in the Solar System abduct humans in Flying Saucers for no obvious reason. They've been doing it for at least a hundred thousand year – there are non-Homo Sapiens hominid species there.

The humans in the Second Sphere – and there are a lot of them and a great many planets – have a trading empire based on hitching rides on alien ships, but know little of technology themselves. The cosmonauts from Earth establish themselves on one world and begin creating a new technological civilization there. (One thing that helps is that they're all very long-lived, having been given effective longevity treatments on earth.)

The second book, Dark Light follows the first human-navigated trip within the Second Sphere. It's about 200 years after the cosmonaut arrived and the cosmonaut families have finally made a breakthrough allowing them to navigate the ship which brought the original cosmonauts from Earth. The story is their trip to a nearby system where one of the original cosmonauts – a meddling unreconstructed Communist – starts a revolution more-or-less out of sheer force of habit. It's an entertaining enough story, but it doesn't really go anywhere. The cosmonauts do become aware that the gods are not as benevolent as they had assumed and that some mysterious aliens who had something to do with the death of the dinosaurs are approaching the Second Sphere.

In Engine City the cosmonaut-inspired human renaissance has gotten to the point that humans are running their own trading ships over half the Second Sphere. Some of the main characters from the first two books set off for Nova Babylonia, the center of human civilization in the Second Sphere, to try to build up a technical civilization there.

Nova Babylonia is well-realized (one of the nicest touches is the military HQ which is simply known as "The Ninth" in much the same way ours is the Pentagon) and deserved more play than it got. As you might expect, the cosmonaut who can't resist toppling governments by the use of his Dialectical Materialism Ray, decides that Nova Babylonia needs to be reorganized to resist the dinosaur-killer aliens and takes over.

(MacLeod skips all that – probably for the better. He leaves Nova Babylonia with the communist just having landed there and being frustrated with its backwardness, and then jumps some new characters in a few decades later to the Republic of New Babylon, a dictatorship with the offending cosmonaut twenty years dead.)

Frankly, I had a bit of trouble following all the action – some of it seemed to be just a bit disconnected and unsupported by the story to date, and in the end the characters' motivations got too murky for me to follow and the story disappointed me – it really didn't seem to go anywhere. I was particularly disappointed that he didn't seem to resolve any of the issues with either the gods or any of the aliens introduced in the first book: the Grays, the various hominids, or the Kraken. Perhaps there's another book coming, but the end of this didn't feel like there was.

In spite of that, MacLeod's wonderful inventiveness took a weak plot and made a book which was still fun to read. And his playfulness with ideas never seems to end.

This isn't a piece of great SF, but it is still well worth reading.

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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