"Cosmonaut Keep" is a page-turning, memorable and enchanting start to Ken MacLeod's "The Engines of Light" space opera science fiction series of novels, successfully recycling such time-worn tropes of science fiction like first contact and the role of computerized technology in a near future human civilization. MacLeod courageously takes us on a centuries-spanning journey through time and space as seen through the eyes of 21st Century outlaw freelance computer programmer Matt Cairns and his direct descendant, Gregor Cairns, an exobiology student and citizen of the remote human colony world of Terra Nova. Cairns is assigned the task of breaking into the computer network of the secret European Space Agency space station Marshall Titov, soon after a mutiny occurs, with the station's scientists seizing control of it from the station's military crew, shortly after making First Contact with an alien race possessing the secret to interstellar travel. Cairns finds himself confronted unexpectedly with his family's historical legacy, even as he tries to woe the daughter of a young trader, not realizing that his research partner Elizabeth has fallen in love with him. Together, with the assistance of their alien Saurian friend Salasso, they seek discovering again, the secret to interstellar travel. This is a novel rich in fantastical imagery, from the arrival of a gigantic starship to stumbling upon the surprisingly rich, almost human, family life of Salasso and his Saurian family and friends. Though MacLeod is a gifted storyteller and a fine prose stylist in his own right, readers should prepare themselves for the frequent, quite substantial, jumps in space and time as he shifts his focus from Matt Cairns to Gregor Cairns; that, however, is merely a minor criticism for what I regard is among the most intelligent, well-conceived, and well-written space opera science fiction in contemporary Anglo-American science fiction literature.
on May 13, 2001
Once again, Ken Macleod has produced an original, intelligent work of science fiction in "Cosmonaut Keep". As usual, he has created a world that is by turns familiar, in other words it has its basis in a plausible future Earth, and completely bizarre. The bizzare aspects, in this isntance, being an earth-like planet that is home to humanoid (and regular) dinosaurs, native humans, and humans from Earth, and starships piloted by giant squid.
Much like his previous books, Macleod has filled this one with quirky, conlicting (and conflicted) politcal theories. It is in this regard that he shines as one of the smartest authors around today. He writes with the authority of a polical scientist, but never comes across as dogmatic. I suspect that in real life he is left of center, but the politcal philosophies his characters espouse are really just vehicles to drive the plot.
Finally, one positive, one negative. On the positive side, the characters in "Cosmonaut Keep" are Macleod's best yet. They show a level of depth that is just amazing; a level I didn't find in his previous works. On the negative side, "Cosmonaut Keep", like Macleod's other novels is told in alternating time periods. This proves to be a very creative way to intertwine seemingly disparite storylines, but it is handled poorly in the first half of this novel. Macleod should have been more careful in the details he reveals, as I found myself hopelessly confused 50 pages in. In the end all becomes clear, but this is a tough novel to get into as a result.
Ultimately, though, "Cosmonaut Keep" is a smart, entertaining beginning to what promises to be a great series. Enjoy!
on May 3, 2001
What's happening to Ken MacLeod?
It seems to be a kind of authorial mid-lfe crisis for SF authors that they have to write a three-volume space opera or they won't feel complete. Some of these are superb though: for example, Peter Hamiliton's 'Night's Dawn' sequence and Paul J. MacAuley's recent trilogy. Macleod's (at least judging by this first volume), doesn't measure up.
Despite having reservations about his ability to really sustain a story, and his often wooden or stereotyped characters, I've always enjoyed his books, not least because of their determinedly idiosyncratic left-wing politics and situations. This one is also enjoyable enough, and has some great individual scenes (in particular the dinosaur-herding-by-flying-saucer bit), but it is too much of the same: parrallel stories (again), beautiful dark-haired heroines (again) etc. And, some of the devices needed to keep the plot going just make you go "D'oh!". I also found the nearer future story-line featuring a group of very dull computer hackers and their friends, uninvolving.
I was left feeling unsure whether the whole thing wasn't meant as parody, and perhaps that the author wasn't sure either. Oh well...
on May 2, 2001
I've rapidly become a huge fan of Ken MacLeod's. I much liked his first four novels, which were all linked to each other, somewhat complexly. But it's nice to seem him branching out somewhat with _Cosmonaut Keep_. This book is set in an entirely different future, and instead of AI's, it features several different species of aliens. The author who seems most present as an influence on _Cosmonaut Keep_ is Poul Anderson: there are several direct echoes of Andersonian themes, and one or two passages that seem almost stylistic hommages to Anderson.
Like all of MacLeod's books except his first, it's told in two timelines. After a mysterious prologue, which only makes sense at the end of the book, we are introduced to Gregor Cairns, a student on the planet Mingulay, and his fellow researchers Elizabeth Harkness and Salasso. Salasso is a saur: an intelligent dinosaur-like being. Elizabeth and Gregor are of different social classes: Elizabeth, it seems, is a "native", while Gregor is a descendant of the "cosmonauts", who arrived at Mingulay some centuries earlier from Earth, in a starship which is now unusable. Soon another starship arrives: this one bearing human traders from Nova Babylonia, traders who in some ways resemble Anderson's Kith (and Heinlein's Traders from _Citizen of the Galaxy_, and Vinge's Qeng Ho), though their starship is actually controlled by aliens called Krakens, who naturally enough are huge entities that live in water. Details about this future interstellar civilization, called the "Second Sphere", are slow to be revealed, and I won't say much here, but they are neat and clever and intriguing details. At any rate, Gregor soon meets a beautiful trader girl and falls in love: but all this is complicated by various personal issues, including the "Great Work" of Gregor's family, and the question of what the traders really want.
The other timeline follows a Scotsman named Matt back in the middle of the 21st century. He's a manager of programmers: the actual programmers are either AI's or aging geeks who remember legacy code like DOS and Unix. He's got a thing for an American named Jadey who is involved with the Resistance movement in England: and before long she's giving him a disk with some very interesting information on it. At the same time, an announcement stuns the world: the (Communist) European Union has been contacted by aliens in an asteroid they've been studying. Soon Jadey is under arrest, and Matt is fleeing to Area 51, then to the asteroid, where they learn that the information Jadey had Matt smuggle out is plans for a spaceship and a space drive. All this is highly destabilizing to the world political situation, which teeters on the brink of chaos while the scientists on the asteroid try to talk to the aliens and build the spaceship. It's easy to see where this is going, given that it has to mesh with the other story, but it's still clever and suspenseful.
This is a very good novel, one of the best I've read in 2000. It's got a nice, well-contained story, involving mainly Gregor and Matt's personal lives mixed with the Great Work (for Gregor) and with Matt's obvious destiny. At the same time this story is clearly a setup for potentially fascinating future books in its series. (The title page says this is Book One of Engines of Light.) It's full of nifty SFnal ideas. Behind the scenes, just barely hinted at, are some really scary implications, and some really well-done half-evocations of deep time. MacLeod's prose continues to improve: he has a habit of mostly just writing sound, clever, workable stuff, then every so often winding up to an emotional and even quasi-poetic peak. The characters are decently drawn, though not especially deep, and there is a certain sense that their romantic lives are resolved rather conveniently. (Which isn't to say necessarily happily.) Mostly, this is just good solid Science Fiction, with plenty of sense of wonder inducing ideas.
on May 1, 2001
In the twenty-first century, renegade programmer Matt Cairns accepts a job from an American freedom fighter named Jadey to crack the impenetrable codes of the Marshal Titov space station. Matt proves to have the right stuff as he breaks the code. He quickly learns that contact with an alien species has occurred. However, the authorities learn of the breach, forcing him to seek passage elsewhere, perhaps with the alien interstellar technology.
Several centuries later, Gregor Cairns, a descendent of Matt, along with his research partner searches for the crew of the Bright Star. He believes that studying the crew and looking at the star-hopping aliens should lead to finding the answer to leaping between the stars. This is something his ancestor apparently had done.
COSMONAUT KEEP is an excellent science fiction tale that will excite sub-genre fans who enjoy a complex in depth look at future earth and alien cultures. The story line is as deep as it gets as the audience tastes two futures on two comparative worlds in one complicated tale. This novel shows that Ken Macleod is one of the better novelists on the market today.
on January 11, 2002
The first book in MacLeods Engines of Light series and the first thing that he has written since the Fall Revolution series.
It's clear to see that MacLeod has had better time for planning before he started this series - the universe seems better structured and the foundation a lot more stable than it did in The Fall Revolution. MacLeod seems a lot more secures as he shows us glimpses of his universe.
This book has two story lines. One telling the tale of how man found faster-than-light travel and one about a marine biologist (and his friends) on the planet of Mingled. And then there's the gods to connect them.
MacLeod is better than ever in this book.
Unfortunately he looses it a bit the sequel (Dark Light), but that's another story.
on February 21, 2001
Macleod's fifth novel - or his second, if you want to treat the first four as a single work - is slow to get going. At page fifty I was beginning to wonder if I really wanted to finish it. But when Macleod's two storylines finally get up to speed, they're compulsive. Having finished the book, my chief reservation is the sense that Macleod hasn't served up anything new: tandem storylines set in the near future and in a space-colonisation future, humans struggling with the implications of nanoscale, superintelligent minds, lovelorn heroes and heroines... it all seemed a bit like a retread. Fun to read, and I'll certainly be picking up the sequel - but if you haven't read Macleod before, start with his earlier ones. They're better.
on May 2, 2001
Ken MacLeod does an amazing job of combining real politics with great sense of wonder science fiction. Cosmonaut Keep, the first book in a new series, is his best book yet. The book does a great job jumping between the stories of two different timelines: one a near future Earth dominated by Russia, another an alien world humans share with various aliens. It even manages to add in some UFO mythology in an interesting (and realistic) way.
I look forward to the next book in the series.