NESFA Members' Reviews

coverThe Stone Canal

by Ken MacLeod

A book review by Mark L. Olson

Tor, 1999, 304 pp, $24.94.

I read and liked The Cassini Division, MacLeod's third novel, but the first to be published in the US. The Stone Canal is better, I think. It's a prequel of sorts, or, at least, it is set in the same universe with some of the same characters mostly at an earlier time.

The story runs in two threads, one starting in the 1980s and continuing to about 2020, and the other on New Mars in the 24th or 25th century.

Jonathan Wilde and David Reid are students at the University of Glasgow in the 80s and deeply involved in radical politics. Reid is some sort of Trotskyite, while Wilde seems to be something more like a left-leaning libertarian. They argue, they fight over lovers and ultimately part company -- but not before Wilde subscribes Reid to every libertarian magazine and mailing list he can. His plot succeeds and Reid, unable to resist reading and critiquing anything political, flip-flops from Trotsky to Rand.

By the 2020s, Wilde's space souvenirs business has turned into a quite profitable large company involved in many space activities. The UK (and elsewhere) has collapsed into near-anarchy by 2020 and Reid resurfaces as one of the leader of a group which plans to abandon Earth and move into space with their minds downloaded into AIs - a classic Vingean Singularity.

Some of the first AIs, however, enslave the rest and Reid and Wilde and others find themselves in robot bodies laboring for the AIs near Jupiter. (This section, by the way, is one of the best pictures I've seen of society near a singularity.)

The other interwoven half of the story takes place on New Mars, where Reid, Wilde and others escaped to after they freed themselves from the AI's grasp and fled through a wormhole that the AIs had built. New Mars is Libertarian and Reid is probably the wealthiest person on it.

Wilde wakes up knowing nothing about how he got there or what happened between his death on Earth in the 2040s and his awakening. The reader's first introduction to the sole city on New Mars is as Jonathan Wilde enters it for the first time in the company of a robot called Jay Dub.

The New Mars part of the story is complicated -- there are flashbacks within flashbacks - but is altogether satisfying and fits nicely with the rest of it. New Mars has some really neat ideas in it -- like using nano tech to build a huge city and then leaving most of it to a robotic ecology until people need it. Hunters venture into the robotic sectors to get parts….

And then there's the group of self-aware robots who have developed a religion.

The Stone Canal is a very strong piece of hard SF, more complicated than The Cassini Division and, I think, more believable. Ken MacLeod goes on my short list of: buy everything they write.

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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