My previous Ken Macleod reading experiences haven’t lived up to the hype surrounding Macleod as a writer. I tried reading his Engines of Light series, but wasn’t interested in finishing. I read Learning the World, but was disappointed. There’s something about his writing style that is offputting to me. So, while the synopsis of The Execution Channel sounded cool, I knew other Macleod books had sounded cool too, but ultimately didn’t follow through. I’m happy to say that The Execution Channel not only lives up to it’s hype, it’s also Macleod’s best book to date.
The Execution Channel takes place in the very near future in a society where the war on terror has resulted in almost ubiquitous surveillance of citizens by their government. All governments, not just certain ones, a tack I was pleasantly surprised to see Macleod, an avowed socialist, take. When an apparent nuclear explosion occurs at a US airbase in the U.K., James Travis, a French spy, and his daughter Roisin, a peace activist, are caught up in a web of conspiracy and deceit as everyone tries to make sense of what is going on.
The cover has the following words on it: “The war on terror is over. Terror won.” This leads you to believe that Al Qaida and other such groups ‘won’ the war and are now running rampant around the world. You’d be wrong. Instead, the more generalized definition of terror is meant: “Intense, sharp, overmastering fear.” Indeed, once the bombs start going off, British society descends into a fearful anarchy, where Muslims become the target of revenge-minded vigilante gangs, even though there is no evidence to support the supposition that Muslim or Islamic terror organizations are behind the bombings. Instead, Travis and Roisin become embroiled in a web of intelligence and counter-intelligence organizations, where all the action takes place in the shadows. No one really knows whats going on, right up to the end. Indeed, terror organizations don’t even play much of a role in the story at all, not even as red herrings.
On the face of it, The Learning Channel appears to be a near future spy thriller, and for most of the book, it is. Macleod does a tremendous job of illustrating how a panopticon-like surveillance system might work, and how it can sift through mounds of data and pinpoint likely suspects, even if those suspects are selected due to chance. Such as Travis and Roisin. Yes, there are engaged in activities that are opposite of what the current government’s goals are, but they don’t have anything to do with the bombings. The bombings allow the authorities to take a closer look at people and certain discrepancies with Travis’ files single him out, while Roisin just happens to be near two bombings, which singles her out. The story focuses on their attempts to re-unite, while negotiating the maze of spy organizations that have become interested in them. As much as Macleod has been lauded for his space opera, I think he’s found a real calling with techno-thrillers. The Execution Channel has enough techie bits to satisfy Clancy readers, while also having enough action and a twisty plot for Ludlum readers.
But SF fans have nothing to fear here. There is, indeed, plenty of SF goodness to be found. Being near future, you’d think that the opportunity for serious SF goodness would be limited. You’d be wrong. Yes, for most of the book, Macleod focuses on near future tech, mostly of the surveillance type, and shows us how it could be use to watch over a society. But there are hints, scattered throughout the story, of much bigger things. The Execution Channel reminds of Singularity by Bill DeSmedt (review). Both start out as techno-thrillers, but lead up to a huge SF-nal ending that will satisfy science fiction junkies everywhere. I can’t even hint at what happens because you might figure out what happens. Suffice it to say, if you have any interest in this book, you should read it. Macleod does a terrific job of dropping the SF hints, then following through in a big way. All I can say is: I guessed wrong.
Not everything is perfect though. Even though the cover says ‘Terror won’, groups like Al Qaida and others don’t play a big role in the story. In fact, they’ve become unwitting puppets of western governments as their membership is riddled with moles. If your expecting a man vs. terror group story, this isn’t it. Second, the actual Execution Channel plays a very small role in the story. The Channel itself shows the executions and deaths of people all over the world at the hands of various law enforcement and government agencies. But given the explanation for how it works, it seems to me someone would have figured out whats going on and stopped it. At least for their own organizations. While it plays a small but pivotal role in Travis’ life, this was one aspect I found unconvincing. Lastly, and I can’t say too much for fear of ruining the surprise, I think Macleod attributes too much technological progress to various socialist and communist countries. The type of science used in the book would require a lot of scientists, working openly together to accomplish. Something those types of countries just won’t allow.
However, those are really only minor nits. The Execution Channel is a terrific story, with a great SF-nal ending. Highly recommended.