Cosmonaut Keep, by Ken MacLeod

cosmonaut-keep-by-ken-macleodGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Published: 2001
Reviewer Rating: four star rating
Book Review by Aaron M. Renn

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Perhaps it was inevitable that my ever escalating expectations for MacLeod’s books would eventually get the best of me. I enjoyed Cosmonaut Keep, but not nearly to the extent of the Fall Revolution. Is it just expectations? Or is the “MacLeod style” just no longer as fresh to me? Or do I have real problems with the book? Probably a bit of all three, though MacLeod on an off day is still better than most people on their best.

Cosmonaut Keep is the first book of a true trilogy. Unlike with the Fall Revolution series, these books don’t stand alone – or at least this one didn’t. We are treated to the expected MacLeod bifurcated time streams: the first a near future story of – what else? – intrigue among political factions revolving around first contact with an alien intelligence; the second in a further out future on a strange world where humans live side by side with other sentient species. It was hard to get going on this one, but once I did I was quickly sucked in and polished the book off in two sittings. Naturally the two threads converge by the end, and how a computer consultant on Earth and a marine biologist on a planet far away come to have anything to do with each other is what makes this book an adventure.

First the good. MacLeod’s writing is crisp and economical. At 336 pages this book is not exactly thin, but it sure isn’t over-bloated either. I love the way he writes dialogue. As a partial believer in numerous fringe political beliefs such as Georgism, I particularly enjoy his extrapolations of future societies under different political schemes and how he manages to pull this off without being preachy or, well, political about it.

And the bad? Well, there is no bad really, just a few things that struck me as flat relative to the Fall Revolution. One is what I thought were fairly self-conscious references to subcultures that heavily overlap the SF fan base, particularly computer hackers. When I hear MacLeod talk about Georgists, I’m amused at his cleverness and use of obscure cultural references. When I hear him talk about slashdot (where I’m registered user number 539), I feel vaguely patronized. To me the computer geek episodes also felt a little too Stephensonesque for comfort. Perhaps I’m a bit sensitive to this because I’m so personally close to it. I did love the concept of the Webblies, though!

Another nitpick is that I did not feel that the alien societies in the book were fully fleshed out or real. Now I’ll be the first to admit that this is an extremely unfair criticism coming from me. I constantly whine about books that are too long and additional alien culture exploration would have bulked this one up, arguably without adding anything real to the story. You sometimes find that SF gets hung up in world building for world building’s sake instead of remembering that it’s the story that matters. MacLeod clearly doesn’t fall into that trap. Knowing what to leave out is perhaps a more important skill than what to put in. Despite my – again vague – feeling of dissatisfaction, I’m willing to give MacLeod the benefit of the doubt on this one. He’s got two more books to add more culture references in around the edges, and if I try to think about it from a purely count-’em-up perspective, I’m sure there was quite a bit in the first installment as well.

But perhaps things like this are just rationalizations for my feeling that this just plain wasn’t as fun to read as the Fall Revolution. When I read The Cassini Division, MacLeod’s prose steamrolled me like a Mack truck. I had to run right out and order his other books from the UK. And bam! bam! bam! they just piled more good things on top. But after taking in four well above average efforts, maybe I’m just becoming a bit numbed to it. The fifth time you get stories about wacky political futures is just not going to be as fun as the first. At the end of the day, this book, despite starting a new series, breaks no real new ground.

Having said all that, Cosmonaut Keep is one that I clearly recommend. Nothing in it changed my opinion that Ken MacLeod is the best writer I’ve sampled working the SF field today. He’s original, witty, and knows how to write. This is one that belongs on every SF reader’s bookshelf.

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