20 August 2003

The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod

I discovered Ken MacLeod recently, after reading China Mieville's 50 Fantasy & Science Fiction Works Socialists Should Read. I'm not a socialist, but I like politically-engaged fiction, particularly with a leftist bent, so I was curious to see what he'd come up with. Mieville writes of MacLeod:
British Trotskyist (of strongly libertarian bent), all of whose (very good) works examine Left politics without sloganeering.
Sounded good to me. When I was next at a bookstore, I found The Stone Canal, where the protagonist, Jonathan Wilde, is described on the back cover as "an anarchist with a nuclear capability who was accused of losing World War III". Sounds good to me, I said to myself, and promptly bought the book.

It is, in many ways, a remarkable novel, though also a frustrating one. I can't say that I've settled my feelings about it -- I know that the story held me most of the time, the characters were sometimes interesting, the imagined world is vivid and interesting both philosophically and scientifically, and the narrative is well constructed with shifting points of view which come together in the end in a surprising and clever way.

Summarizing the plot in a few sentences is nearly impossible -- the story ranges from the 1970s to the end of time. The protagonist is Jonathan Wilde, who discovers at the beginning of the book that he's been resurrected by revolutionaries on a future planet far from the solar system, a planet called "New Mars" where canals have deliberately been built and the society is structured along anarcho-capitalist lines. Wilde had been friends during the end of the twentieth century with David Reid, who ultimately founded New Mars. (Thanks to nanotechnology and some other advances, human lifespans have become essentially limitless.) Wilde was an anarcho-capitalist, but not as vociferously as Reid, because Wilde is first of all an opportunist (with some similarities to a certain character written by about Henry Fielding in the eponymous novel Jonathan Wild), and so he and Reid came to be on-again/off-again enemies, and now Wilde is considered the only hope for helping people in New Mars escape from Reid's tyrannical grip on genetic materials he brought with him from Earth, and which may allow dead humans to be resurrected.

The story is full of action, and full of political discussion. I love political discussion, and found the earliest chapters about Wilde's life in contemporary Britain to be the most compelling parts of the book. I doubt this is true for most readers. The rest of the book was fascinating, but I wanted to get more of a sense of how everyday life on New Mars worked, because some of the principles which governed life in this world had been argued out in the earlier sections, but it was never clear to me (perhaps I didn't read closely enough) which were really in effect. So much time is spent on moving the action forward that, in the second half of the novel, the details of the world itself grow thinner and less compelling, as if MacLeod had realized his publishers would want him to get as big an audience as possible, so he pumped up the standard thriller elements of the book at the expense of the world building. It may also be that I shouldn't have read this book first, for MacLeod's first novel, The Star Fraction, is a prequel. I'll have to read that next and see if it helps.

Some critics have called MacLeod a stylist, and I would disagree with this. A philosopher, sure. A good writer, definitely. But his prose is standard stuff -- clear, full of momentum, and, ultimately, pedestrian. This does no disservice to the book, though I do wonder what a writer more concerned with language would have been able to do with the material, for the many provocative ideas in the book call out for more provocative handling. Alas, we can't have everything, and if The Stone Canal is not a masterpiece, it is, at least, thought-provoking and worth a quick read.