by Ken MacLeod
Tor Hardcover: ISBN
Review by Ernest Lilley
304 pages List price
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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.
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
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
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
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
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.