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- Published on Amazon.com
Published in 2007, during G.W. Bush's second term, Ken MacLeod's THE EXECUTION CHANNEL is an indictment of the British government's buy-in on the American "Global War on Terror" and a lament that the British people let it happen. It is also a warning about the damage we do when we abandon our core principles out of fear, and when we lie to ourselves so much that we can't tell the difference between fact and fantasy. Or, rather, when we let *them* (the government) do those things to themselves and to us.
The novel kicks off with an apparent nuclear explosion on a Scottish air base, followed by a series of bombings that destroy oil refineries and heavily traveled highway overpasses throughout the UK. Among those caught up in the chaos are IT professional James Travis and his peace activist daughter Roisin. Travis is a man so disillusioned with his country that he opts to spy for France. As we are told,
"He had no special regard for France. The thing he liked about France was that it was French. The thing he hated about England was that it wasn't English. This had nothing to do with race or religion or nation or politics, as far as he could see. ... At some point England had simply failed itself." (p. 201)
For Travis, his sense of England's failure is linked both due to his wife's death in a flu epidemic, which he attributes to government negligence (shades of Katrina), and also to "the hollow justifications for the attack on Iran which he'd been so sure that the [House of] Commons would see through," and the lack of public protest when they didn't. Mostly, though, his decision to spy was based on anger at "being kept in the dark" by the government. "You keep me in the dark? Very well, I will walk in darkness and strike in darkness."
This thread of the novel is indeed dark; Travis efforts may have inadvertently facilitated the bombings, and his daughter's efforts to get out the truth--to dispel the darkness--about the initial explosion get her tortured and come close to starting a war. Worse, both of them contribute to the institutionalized government paranoia that leads to the torture and murder of Roisin's brother Alec.
On the other hand, what makes the novel a good read are the efforts of Travis, Roisin, and an American blogger named Mark Dark to outwit the authorities, discover the truth, and deliver it to the public. There are chase scenes, ingenious disguises, and clever subterfuges that fool, at least for a time, the ever-more-powerful governmental technologies of surveillance (omnipresent CCTV, face recognition software, credit tracking, GPS in cell phones, quick DNA testing, etc.). Particularly amusing is the interplay between a U.S. government contractor hired to spread disinformation about the U.K. attacks, and Mark Dark, a racist (he calls Muslims "sand Nazis") kid who blogs out of his mother's basement. Amusingly, the contractor is never told what the truth is and could easily hit upon it by accident.
Although MacLeod is clearly a Lefty -- I think it's safe to call him a Left-Libertarian -- he makes an effort here to simply be an advocate for what most Brits and Americans think their countries should stand for. They shouldn't launch wars against countries that haven't attacked them, or torture people, or detain people indefinitely without charge, or lie as a matter of government policy. He doesn't blame the Americans for everything, as some have charged; the American authorities may be nastier and more brutish than the British, but the Brits are equally short-sighted and equally responsible for what happens. Neither does he place the blame specifically on Bush or on particular political parties; he doesn't excuse anybody. He may be, like his character Travis, genuinely puzzled about how we came to this pass.
The reasons to read this book even if you don't like MacLeod's politics are (a) even though it is far from MacLeod's best novel (I would pick THE STAR FRACTION), it is MacLeod's best written to date, and (b) because it is entertaining, with good action, a sympathetic central character in Roisin, and a keep-'em-guessing mystery. The dénouement, which is surprising and difficult-to-swallow (or even make sense of). I would recommend it to fans without hesitation and to the rest of the world with minor reservations.
One last note: This novel does not read as if it was written for Americans. It wasn't. If you're not willing to look up how "Roisin" is pronounced (it's an Irish name, pronounced "Rosheen") or research what "fnar fnar" means ("har har," essentially), or if you think that anything that happens in Scotland is beneath your notice, don't read this book.