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March 2003
2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Engine City by Ken MacLeod
Tor Hardcover
: ISBN 076530502X PubDate Jan 03
Review by Ernest Lilley
304 pages List price $24.95  
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(Far left: US cover, Near left: UK cover)

I like closure, but I'm sorry to see the Engines of light trilogy end. I've enjoyed Ken Macleod's tale of cosmonauts, dinosaurs, UFOs and a universe full of life, Fermi be damned.

It goes like this. The universe is filled with sentient microbes that in sufficient quantity make up teeny tiny microbe-civilizations, which in turn make up local uber-minds, which are generally referred to as gods. This takes place in the quiet of space, on asteroids and other rocks, where they can hear themselves think, that is attune to the infinitesimal radiations that they communicate by. For gods, the noisiness of you environment is inversely related to the intelligence you can attain, and planets never get much beyond a general awareness of what's going on around them.

SFRevu Interview:
Ken MacLeod (Aug 2002)
Engines of Light Series:
Dark Light
(Hugo Nominee)
 
Cosmonaut Keep

Engine City

Biological life is another story, the dinosaurs, squids, ours...and the aliens.

Once upon a time, aliens came to earth and made friends with the smarter dinosaurs and giant squid, the kraken. They tweaked their genes for intelligence, offered them the chance to see the stars and started building a galactic culture...a very noisy (electromagnetically speaking) culture.

Then 65 million years ago, the gods in the solar system got sick of the neighbors noise and threw a rock at them. A good sized, metal bearing asteroid type rock which had possibly more effect than they meant, so they helped load up the survivors and replant them among a planet rich region on the other side of the galaxy. Periodically they planted more. In part, this explains UFO sightings. In part.

Then, about the time we reached out into space, making an unbearable din, the gods decided that instead of killing us off and resetting the planet's evolutionary clock one more time, especially since it seemed to be a short lived solution, they'd see if they could get us to move. So, when a European Union space expedition to a near earth object, which happened to be a god asteroid passing by to take a look, started digging away at the rock, they were surprised to find their computer flooded with incoming data. including the details on how to build a light speed drive.

They built it, renamed their ship the Bright Star, and tried it out, to find themselves nowhere near where they wanted to go, but on the other side of the galaxy, in the same region of space the gods have been dumping earthlings all along. As a result, they found planets and settled by a curious mixture of saurs, humans, proto-humans, and kraken, er...intelligent giant squids.

A brief word about the light-speed engine. You travel at the speed of light, in zero subjective time. So to you, the cosmonaut, or astronaut, if you prefer, you blink out of one spot and into another. The only thing is, time passes. It takes a year to travel a light year. It's relatively clever.

There's a starship trading culture in this region of space. Families of traders ply the routes between settled worlds, living out of synch with the planets they trade with, watching centuries pass between visits. Humans need the kraken to pilot the starships, and the saurs to crew them...up until the arrival of Matt, Volokov and the rest of the Euros. Though they didn't figure out how to navigate, Matt's family at least made it a priority to figure it out, and from a study of the nervous system of the Kraken, they finally cracked it, sending human piloted starships off to the trading worlds in the Second Sphere.

One other thing. Matt, Volokov and the others on the Bright Star...they're immortal. They're not quite sure how, but it was something they'd been working on back on Earth, and evidentially it took. Pity they don't know the secret to share with everyone they meet, but maybe they can figure it out.

Throughout the whole three book series, there's an ideological conflict between Matt and Volokov. Volokov is a communist revolutionary at heart and keeps stirring that pot wherever he goes, while Matt is, I guess, more or less a libertarian, anyway they are oil and water. They both know the aliens that started the whole god throwing rocks thing are coming, and they'd like to be ready but they have very different ideas of what ready means.

Matt goes out to meet the aliens to see if a deal can be made. The aliens, furry eight limbed deals who call themselves multipliers are happy to oblige, offering to become part of the human/saur culture. Resistance is futile, Matt quips, You will assimilate us. Of course, that entails taking nanoscopic versions of the aliens into our bloodstreams so we can all be immortal.

Meanwhile, Volokov is stirring up the inhabitants of Nova Terra to war footing to fend off the same aliens. It's cold war paranoia all over again, and when the first wave of aliens show up, they're greeted with high energy plasma weapons and crisped to a critter. Then Matt, Aliens and friends sneak into the Nova Terra system to council reason...or something.

Their challenge, to undermine the rabid war mongering of the Volkovian state and get the Nova Terrans to at least consider a bigger picture. How? By confusing the heck out of them using tried and true methods the aliens have tried out before...UFOs, abductions, crop circles, Men in Black...the whole nine yards.

No, really. I'm not making any of this up, and it all works really well under MacLeod's hand. 

The trilogy is powered by MacLeod's fine storytelling and the characters/conflicts he creates. Matt is a cynical, likeable guy in a dinosaur hide leather jacket that would like the world to settle down and enjoy a pint. Volkov is a modernist looking to create the state and save humanity through strength. Lots of others create foils and friends and I'm sorry to see the end of them, but though there's room for a new story to take off from, Engine City ends this particular storyline...not with a whimper, but as is traditional, with a bang.

sfr3d.gif (19860 bytes) 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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