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Ken Macleod
Newton's Wake: A Space Opera
Tor / Tom Doherty Associates
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 0-765-30503-8
Publication Date: 06-01-2004
320 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 06-02-04
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004

Ken Macleod
Newton's Wake
UK Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 1-841-49175-6
Publication Date: 03-04-2004
384 Pages; £17.99
Date Reviewed: 06-02-04
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004

Index:  Science Fiction

With science fiction the future's the thing. Whiz-bang, we're in the twenty-third century; or the twenty-fifth century; or thirty-five years in the future. And so, dropped in the future, surrounded by the future, and headed for the future in the future, it's easy to neglect the past. But the past is there, all right; even in the future. There's that mysterious time, for the reader, between now — the time when the reader is opening the book — and the future, or that point in the future when the story begins.

That segment of time — the future's past, and the present's future — does require some definition. Indeed, that's the propelling force for many a science fiction novel; how did our world become this world? And having become this world, what might it next become? Few writers have such a mastery of blending the past, present and future as Ken Macleod. However, in his previous work, readers have been required to invest in a series to fully enjoy the breadth of his clever historical revisions. Now that experience is available to novice readers and fans alike, in his first standalone work, 'Newton's Wake: A Space Opera'. Full of the same low-key and intelligent humor as his other work, 'Newton's Wake' lives up to its subtitle and then some. Macleod stuffs his space opera so chock full of ideas, riffs and references that readers will constantly enjoy the pleasant feel of incipient information overload. 'Newton's Wake' has the grand arc, the huge characters and the rigorous structure of any musical opera and also offers the light comedic touches one associates with the wittiest of Mozart's works. All this while casually slagging Microsoft; once again, Macleod demonstrates his wit with bracing brevity.

'Newton's Wake' begins as a bit of "combat archaeology" goes bad. The Carlyle Clan pretty much owns the wormhole network that connects the known universe. When Lucinda Carlyle steps through the gate on the planet Eurydice, she knows that she's found a planet worth snagging. But when she blunders into an ancient artifact on the planet, she triggers a machine that threatens to disassemble the Universe as she and humanity now know it. Just how — and what — they know are the mysteries that will pull readers through one brain-boggling escapade after another.

Macleod lets us know early on that sometime after now, the military AI's of earth took charge in what is referred to as the "Hard Rapture". Some humans remained, some went running, some made bargains and some simply disappeared into the machines. Who went where and why is not clear, at least not at first. The great fun of 'Newton's Wake' is twofold. There's the science-fictional joy of finding out the complex history of Macleod's future while the end result of that history is dismantled right before the characters' —and the readers' eyes. Then there's the linguistic construct — the novel 'Newton's Wake' — that Macleod offers as a document of those events. The language in 'Newton's Wake' is a pure and complex joy, a mélange of ping-ponging, self-referential jokes and jargon that's so dense it might take a work of non-fiction equally long — or longer — to explain. But the joy is that readers will experience all the erudition of that non-existent work of non-fiction in the space of a couple of packed paragraphs in Macleod's enjoyable tale.

The plot that unfolds in Macleod's future is complex and mysterious. What's happening is inexplicable even to those who are experiencing it; and every time the reader is just about caught up with the future's past, another element of the future's present throws that past into utter doubt or an entirely different light. Lies, myths and misunderstandings fragment the plot then click together with smooth precision. It's a breathtaking performance and a reading experience that has no parallel. Macleod's world is so packed with details that detain the reader in a techno-backwater or an isolated cutting-edge camp, there's little time to catch your reading breath. But Macleod doesn't disappoint when it comes time to put the picture together. He doesn't over-explain and he doesn't wave his hands. There's a light at the end of the tunnel, and whether it's a train or the light of day, you'll be happy to hit it at faster than the speed of light. This novel is after all, titled 'Newton's Wake'; and that wake is celebrating the end of physics and science fiction as we think we know it.

Macleod doesn't let his characters get lost in all this scintillating intellectual action. From the unfortunate Lucinda Carlyle to the unforgettable resurrected folksingers, Winter and Calder, Macleod gives us humans we can cling to in the chaos of a future that's all the more alien for being the sole work of humans. He even gives his machines a character we can clutch; whether it's Shlaim, the human ghost resurrected to act as a virtual slave within a spacesuit or The Hungry Dragon, a starship infected with a viral intelligence, Macleod makes his machines as canny as the humans who inhabit them.

But beyond the complex and shiny surface of 'Newton's Wake', there's a universe of subtext that's every bit as compelling as the story itself. Macleod peppers the reader with jokes and references in every sentence, every paragraph. Nobody in the past, present or future of fiction and science fiction emerges unscathed or unmentioned. Macleod is canny enough to make sure that none of his cleverness gets in the way of the story. But 'Newton's Wake' is like one of those complicated pictures that proves itself to be composed of equally complicated pictures. Like it or not, there's an army of grad students waiting to write dissertations on Macleod's work. In the interim, the average reader can just sit back, enjoy the ride and love the language.

'Newton's Wake' does not tread a lot of new territory for Macleod, but it puts a lot of that territory into a concise, ultra-dense package that unfolds and then unfolds again. The politics are here, the present is here, both in Macleod's backwater interstellar settlements and in the mystery of the Hard Rapture, and the future is here in all its gleaming, shiny glory. Readers will be scratching their heads one minute and jumping for joy the next, flash to the future and blast to the past. It's all there —now. Macleod uses the lowest of technology, the most primitive of entertainments — the novel — to take the reader father than any high-tech virtual reality. In Macleod's mind, in his work, words are the next — and the final — frontier.

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