Author: Ken MacLeod
307 pages • £17.99
What exactly is the purpose of science fiction? There’s nothing to say it can’t just be entertainment, but the best SF always has something more about it, a central theme that resonates. Would the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica have such bleak power without its references to Iraq and the so-called War on Terror?
It’s perhaps curious then, that in an era when British literary SF is enjoying a renaissance, few writers make such overt references to current events. That’s not necessarily to say we should expect our authors to always be scribbling away at protest novels because times are nervy, but maybe, just maybe, it’s a dereliction of duty for them not at least to tackle such issues sometimes.
Of course, nobody ever accused Ken MacLeod of lacking political engagement. For more than a decade now, he’s been gleefully throwing the members of far-left factions into space and, with a playful sense of humour, recording their adventures and eavesdropping on their ideological arguments. Yet even in a Ken MacLeod novel, it’s just about possible to overlook the politics – perhaps because you’re focusing too hard on, say, the idea of a giant squid piloting a starship.
With The Execution Channel, though, even the marine distractions of the Engines of Light sequence are set to one side as MacLeod turns his attention to our immediate future. That he does so within a world that’s subtly different to our own is hardly reassuring. Even if Gore had beaten Bush, MacLeod appears to suggest, it’s naïve to think that a Democrat in the White House would have made that much difference to the course of events.
The result is an alternate universe that feels the same as our own timeline. Certainly, the mindset of traitor James Travis will be familiar to anyone who ever hummed “Things Can Only Get Better” with a sense of optimism back in 1997. For Travis, his willingness to betray his country stems not from the “lack of preparation for the pandemic” or the “hollow justifications for the attack on Iran”, but a terrible sense of disillusionment: “The thing he hated about England was that it wasn’t English… At some point England had simply failed itself.”
Travis’s betrayals are thrust into relief with the advent of what at first seems to be a nuclear attack against Britain. Was the incident the result of terrorism? Sabotage by a foreign power? The malfunction of an experimental weapon? Peacenik Roisin Travis (James’s daughter) has photographs that may provide an answer, but she’s about to fall into the hands of the British secret services. An even worse fate awaits Travis’s soldier son.
If this seems like the stuff of an airport novel, it’s because The Execution Channel (the title, incidentally, is drawn from the idea of a snuff movie war footage feed) is at root a spy thriller, complete with double-crosses and suitably ambiguous characters. Within this narrative, MacLeod explores his chosen themes, including the growth of authoritarianism and the slipperyness of “objective” truth on a World Wide Web where even your friendly conspiracy nut blogger may be inadvertently spreading disinformation.
There are points in the middle where the narrative slows a bit, and the final chapters are, depending on your perspective, jaw-droppingly audacious or belong in another novel entirely. Any grumbles, though, pale in comparison to a wider point: one of the purposes of science fiction is to illuminate today’s world, and The Execution Channel does this in a frighteningly believable fashion.