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Cosmonaut Keep

Engines of Light, Book One

Ken Macleod

Orbit / Little, Brown

UK Hardcover First Edition

ISBN 1-85723-986-5

308 Pages; #16.99 ($40.00)


ISBN 0765340739

US Mass Market Paperback

336 pages; $7.99

Date Reviewed: 02-11-2002

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel



Science Fiction

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

There's a lot that's familiar -- and a lot that's new -- in 'Cosmonaut Keep' the first book in a new series by Scottish writer Ken Macleod. Like his other novels, it features murky socialist politics and dual storylines, taking place in the present and in the distant future. Unlike his other novels, it announces up front that it's the first in a series, and it introduces a whole batch of aliens, even though they are awfully familiar. It's an impressive beginning that's sure to hook fans of his other novels, and might just bring in a few more, with it's familiar use of spaceships and aliens. But those old SF tropes are only there to be used in the most unusual fashion. Ken Macleod has not lost his iconoclastic grip on writing science fiction that is first and foremost, social(ist) science fiction. 'Cosmonaut Keep' is indeed aptly titled.

The reader is first introduced to Gregor Cairns and Elizabeth Harkness, students of marine biology on the world of Mingulay. They are studying the squid-like life with the help of Salasso, a vaguely reptilian Saur who bears more than a passing resemblance to what we would call a gray alien. The arrival of an interstellar trade ship harkens the beginning of a world of change for both of them. It's not a common event -- in Macleod's universe, starships don't zip between planets in a matter of days with the help of hyperdrive. They're bound by the relativistic universe, and a couple of years of travel on a starship will encompass a couple of hundred of years of planetary history. When they're there, the traders will engage in love, capitalism and politics to the best of their advantage. When they're gone, the world will change.

Macleod then jumps to the near future where Matt Cairns is a freelance Systems Manager who comes across some very hot data. The Russians, who have overrun Europe and created a socialist state, claim to have contacted aliens. Matt learns that they're not telling the whole truth, and nobody else is either. In short order he's asked to conceal and then convey blueprints for what might be a working starship.

Macleod then barges ahead, taking the reader on a merry chase across two worlds, four cultures, and some of the wildest politics and science this side of the Iron Curtain, long after it's fallen. His humans encounter incomprehensible aliens that they know and some they have never seen. The map of human exploration into space is laid wide open and described by the gods. Europe falls, America rises, the human race lurches into the cosmos. It's heady stuff tacked down by characters that may seem a bit sketchy but who become real by virtue of their carefully detailed emotional lives. They love one another, they're jealous and petty and engaged in world altering work. And all of this is offered up within a barely comprehensible set of scheming politicians, factions and socialist social engineering. Some readers will feel their head spin and sense that they're missing the point, while others will become encompassed in Macleod's passionate political science fiction. That said, this is Macleod's most accessible work yet, and certainly worth investigation by fans of science fiction that is not your usual rock'em, sock'em space opera. For all the ideas and speculation packed in them, Macleod's novels are blissfully brief and to the point. 'Cosmonaut Keep' is a riotous introduction to Macleod's socialist worldview, and an intriguing first block of an utterly original universe.