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Engine City

Ken Macleod

Orbit / Time Warner UK

UK Hardcover First

ISBN 1-841-49148-9

Publication Date: 11-07-2002

271 Pages; £16.99


US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-765-30502-X

Publication Date: 02-13-2003

304 Pages; $24.95


Date Reviewed: 06-25-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel (c) 2003



Science Fiction

01-25-02, 02-11-02, 02-14-02, 10-03-02, 12-13-02, 02-25-03, 07-12-03

Alien invasions are the meat-and-potatoes of science fiction. From 'The War of the Worlds' to 'Childhood's End', from 'The Puppet Masters' to 'The Andromeda Strain', from 'The Book of the Damned' to 'The Mothman Prophecies', authors have been positing the attack of our planet by entities from both inner and out space. 'The Book of the Damned' and 'The Mothman Prophecies' are not exactly science fiction, but they definitely inform the final volume of Ken Macleod's 'Engines of Light' trilogy, 'Engine City'. Zigging when you expect it to zag, spinning when you expect it to rest, Macleod's novel offer nothing less than a full-fledged Fortean1 invasion of a Dystopian but disturbingly familiar earth-analogue. It's a bracing, entertaining, thought-inciting novel so full of ideas the words begin to seem like hay in a needle-stack. This is dangerous, heady reading that will frustrate the fearless and depress the disheartened. The glimpses of freedom are compromised by vistas of slavery. The hopes of the imaginative are pincered between grinding poverty and absolute power that has corrupted absolutely. Stellar gods are as petty as puny humans. Reality is flexible, but those doing the flexing not only have no human interest at heart; they have no heart or comprehension of humanity. Entropy doesn't just reign; it pours.

'Engine City' begins with a straightforward and welcome summary of some of the events in the first two books, enough so that those who might have forgotten - or never quite sussed - the events therein will feel refreshed and ready to embark on Macleod's downward plunge. The immortal cosmonaut Volkov has put himself in a position of power in the ruling city of Nova Babylonia on Nova Terra, the jewel in the Second sphere of human habitation. Humans share this space with the Saurs, whom we would recognize as Grey aliens, the Gigants, whom we would recognize as Bigfoot and the Krakens, intelligent squid who were early risers in the consciousness and intelligence race, and were the sole pilots of starships until the arrival of the alien humans from earth. Then there are the gods, microbial intelligences that inhabit comets and asteroids, immeasurably ancient and incomprehensibly intelligent, impossibly powerful. Gods.

But there's something else out there as well, and it threatens the delicate imbalance that keeps the Second Sphere sane. When Elizabeth and Matt discover fossils of something resembling an extra-large spider covered with hair, the balance tilts and Macleod's chaotic universe starts a downward spiral into madness that makes chaos look inviting. 'Engine City' soon finds its protagonists conducting a full-scale war with no weapons beyond their wits and technology sufficiently advanced enough to appear magical.

Macleod plunges unto Fortean waters early on in the narrative when he lovingly and excitingly describes a first-contact with aquatic apes, a much-discussed subject in the annals of cryptozoology. Macleod's language is wonderful, and his imagination is sharp. He nails all the nuances we might expect were we to encounter a race that was smart but not equipped with those pesky universal translators that make so much of SF an easy ride. It's a bracing encounter, SF doing what it does best, stimulating the brain in unpredictable ways.

Once Macleod's protagonists find themselves forced to wage a war without weapons, they turn to Charles Fort's 'Book of the Damned' and John Keel's 'The Mothman Prophecies' for strategies. By creating the appearance of anomalous phenomena, by dressing in black and going door-to-door, by driving their conveniently invisible gravity skiffs (which happen to actually be flying saucers), they strike at the heart of their enemy's reality. But Macleod doesn't miss a trick, and soon the tricksters find themselves experiencing anomalous phenomena, another neat SF trick of "upping the ante".

Throughout the narrative, Macleod displays his subtle wit. This isn't laugh-out-loud humor, but high cleverness that will result in constant amusement once you get the Macleod vibe. This vibe is inimitable and unique; there are no others who can pull off Macleod's high-wire act. Don't look for deep characterization. Macleod keeps things moving with relativistic jumps forward that find one chapter's teenagers becoming the next chapter's geezers. Macleod's capable of subtle and deep thought however, and he gives it to the reader in such a concentrated doses, you'll spend as much time reading and digesting his tiny tomes as you will the book-bricks of his compatriots in the space opera game.

But though 'Engines of Light' - and 'Engine City' - have all the touch-points of space opera, they don't particularly read like it. Macleod is looking for something entirely different -- an idea gazpacho, a mélange of thoughts and suppositions that complement and enhance one another. His books are a consummately American-style melting pot where the readers can encounter sharp political satire and on the very next page find themselves up against a sci-fi in-joke. 'Engine City' offers a very satisfying, thoroughly depressing conclusion to a series that manages to ask a lot more questions than it answers. For Macleod, posing the question is the important act; the answers are always at best contradictory, but more often something we don't want to hear. Macleod's talent lies in his ability to bring us the confusing, bad news in sprightly, enjoyable prose packages.

[1] If you're unfamiliar with the term Fortean, please read this column which will bring you up to speed -- and believe me, you need to understand Fortean to understand this novel.