Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Cosmonaut Keep

by Ken MacLeod


On the planet Mingulay, Gregor Cairns is a marine biologist with a mission. He is working with Elizabeth, a human, and Salasso, an alien of the saur species, when a spacecraft arrives from Nova Babylonia. This is a rare event. Interstellar travel is not for the masses. Only the wealthy who are prepared to leave behind everyone they know can travel on the enormous ships piloted by sentient sea-monsters. The ships move forward in both time and space, crossing vast distances in a subjective instant. This is the story of humans attempting to build a spacecraft and go to the stars, even if they're not the first.

This short description doesn't do the plot justice, not least because it's only half the story. The other thread takes place on Earth at an earlier era, in the 2040's. The communists have taken over Europe, and amidst this unlikely political background Matt Cairns is up to something. He's been mixing with dissidents, and has got his hands on technology so important and groundbreaking he needs to smuggle it out of the country. He does this with the help of Jadey, a woman he is also in love with.

Matt is a software manager by profession. Ken MacLeod also used to be a programmer. Unfortunately it shows, and Cosmonaut Keep is saturated with geek-speak. At points it reads like a cross between Neuromancer and a computer science text-book.

Jadey and Matt don't work as characters. I barely knew who they were and what they might do next, so it's hard to care about them. Reading Cosmonaut Keep is a very disjointed business, with action in the two different timelines having an entirely different feel. Matt's life is frantic, dangerous and political. Whereas Gregor lives in a more alien yet less immediately threatening environment, civilised yet astonishing. Although Gregor, Elizabeth and Salasso are more engaging characters to read about, there's little sense of danger for them.

The book begins and ends with passages written in the second person, the portion about Matt is written in the first person, and Gregor's bit is in the third. This regular jump of perspective is clumsy and confusing. Book one of the Engines of Light leaves a lot of unanswered questions that we can only hope that the rest of the series will clarify. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but more than that it's not clear why the reader should care about what is taking place.

That's not to say that Cosmonaut Keep is without merit: MacLeod has invented richly imagined new worlds that are a pleasure to explore. His vision is not stinted, and there's plenty of political intrigue that has you wondering what side everyone is on. It's a good read, but not one that rises above the mass of recent space opera to become a must-read.

Book Details

Year: 2000

Categories: Books

  Science fiction

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3 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson
Read more about Ken Macleod