The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod
It’s strange how a book you’re reading can fit into the moment. I’d already read several of Ken MacLeod‘s books and was impressed enough to grab this one straight away from the library shelf.
It’s set in a Britain of the near future, when terrorism has spread widely and bombings are almost an everyday occurance in the west and state surveillance, both covert and overt, has increased dramatically. The story starts with an (apparent) nuke explosion at the US air base at Leuchars. Roisin Travers and her companions at the peace camp outside know that it was not a terrorist bombing – and they have photos of the mysterious object that appeared to be the cause of the blast. More bombings and atrocities rapidly follow, Roisin is forced on the run; her father James Travis has to use all his resources as an IT expert and spy to help her, and expose the conspiracy. But things are far more complicated than they look, and Travis himself ends up being hunted as well.
Macleod draws a vividly terrifying picture of Britain turning into a fascist state, with espionage and counter-espionage muddying the waters and feeding disinformation and black propaganda to the people. There isn’t much science-fiction involved at all in this part of the story – the author merely had to extend existing trends just a little. He does this so well that I actually had to put the book down on a couple of occasions, switch on the TV and remind myself that it hasn’t happened. Yet. (This was the day before the London carbombs were discovered, so my relief didn’t last long.)
There were a couple of things that spoiled it just a little for me. About halfway through, when he’s drawn a detailed and believable picture of a Britain fully involved in the US-led “War On Terrorism”, he reveals that this is in fact an alternative history where Bush lost the 2000 election to Gore. There doesn’t, however, seem to be much point in this. In this universe, the atrocities of 9/11 and 7/7 still happened (though with different details); Gore turned out to be as much of a liability as Bush; the Irag and Afghanistan debacles still happened. There’s a nice little in-joke when we learn that in this alternative universe, it’s the nutjub conspiracy theorists who believe that the towers were bought down by hijacked planes instead of explosives on 9/11. But I do wonder why he bothered, except to make a political point about all US presidents being as bad as each other.
The other disappointment was the way science-fiction element of the story was handled. We got very little of it until the end, when it was shoved in like a deus ex machina, to wrap the story up; that felt very clumsy. And there was just the faintest feeling that this is going to be the start of another space-faring series. ala the The Fall Revolution” books.
In spite of the caveats above, I liked this book. MacLeod is not afraid of mixing politics – socialist politics at that! – into SF, and his focus on Scotland is welcome in a British literary world that seems to be centred on SE England. And the depiction here of what sort of society the emphasis the current “War On Terror” will almost inevitably lead to is something that we should all take notice of.