The Execution Channel
by Ken MacLeod
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765320674
Date: 10 June 2008 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
[Note: This review was originally published in our June 2007 issue.]
The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod is very hard to characterize. In part it is a novel set in an alternate present, with a historical change to the very recent past. In part it is a spy thriller, a satire of the post-9/11 world with a heavy warning of the "if this goes on" school. And hidden in all this is a classic science fiction idea that will catch the reader by surprise at the very end with the clues not being evident until the second or even third reading.
The alternate universe elements are slight and easily missed. In this universe, Al Gore is elected president instead of Bush and launches a first strike on Bin Laden. This led to an alternate 9/11 event in which terrorists use explosives to blow up Boston's Hancock and Prudential Towers while flying airliners into Boston's State House and Faneuil Hall. But there's no real plot reason for this change in history. One can only suspect that MacLeod is trying to make the point that his novel is not bashing Bush, that America's problems would have happened under any other president.
MacLeod paints a more paranoid present than our own, with France and England at odds, the U.S. a source for second-rate merchandise, and governments actively spying on and lying to their own citizens (well, maybe just somewhat more paranoid). The book focuses on Roisin Travis, a young woman who helps an anti-war group spy on a USAF military base in Scotland, and her father, James Travis, who secretly spies for France. Commentary and counterpoint to the main action come from a blogger who runs a conspiracy website and government workers who spread disinformation to such sites. The execution channel of the title, which broadcasts government killings from secret software hidden in cameras, actually plays a very minor role.
The story begins when a nuclear bomb seemingly explodes on the base Roisin watches. Roisin and her companions, following a warning from Roisin's brother who is in the military, flee. They have the only photographs of a strange device being assembled on the base. Government agents soon are chasing all three members of the Travis family. Meanwhile, a disinformation specialist begins feeding false information to a blogger named Mark Dark about Heim-Theory faster-than-light ships. He uncovers the fraud using Google caches and "view source", becoming enough of a minor celebrity in the conspiracy community that real information is sent and he begins to make connections.
The novel is unusual for MacLeod in that there is no real hero and no villain. All characters are reacting to events and the writer deliberately withholds information about the device until the very end, so the truth of what is going on catches the reader by surprise as much as the characters. The result is a book that needs to be read more than once to fully understand it. This may very well interest fans of the more intellectual spy thrillers more than fans of MacLeod's other novels. And, unlike many of his previous books, readers do not need to know anything about the history of Europe's underground socialist movements to make sense of the book (even though there is a humorous depiction of a meeting of Roisin's group). Ultimately, the novel clearly is trying to say something important about our post-9/11 world and the compromises governments and people are making in order to live in it.