Volume 16, Number 3, Summer, 1998

The Cassini Division

By Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 1998
Reviewed by Per Ericson

The Star Fraction was Ken MacLeod’s first novel, and it won the 1996 Prometheus Award. Then came The Stone Canal, another great book and a 1997 Prometheus Award Finalist [and the winner, see page 2—editor]. The Cassini Division is set in the same universe as the previous two.

This novel is less complex and the narrative more straightforward, but nevertheless it is a thrilling story, and explicitly libertarian, too. The central character is Ellen May Ngwethu, a young woman in the Cassini Division—the elite defense force of The Solar Union. The Solar Union is an anarcho-socialist society encompassing the whole of Earth, except for a few non-cooperative individuals like brilliant scientist I. K. Malley.

Sort of. MacLeod isn’t writing about conventional anarcho-socialism. There is a golden statue of Mises in the hall of the Central Planning Board. The Unionists have taken elements from Stirner, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin and Spencer (to name a few) and created what MacLeod refers to as “the first socialist philosophy based on totally pessimistic and cynical conclusions about human nature.”

Or as Ellen May Ngwethu puts it, “We had founded our idealism on the most nihilistic implications of science, our socialism on crass self-interest, our peace on our capacity for mutual destruction, and our liberty on determinism.” In his thank you note after receiving the Prometheus Award, Ken MacLeod made it clear that he got his inspiration both from authors like Heinlein, and from “the left-hand path” of “imagined stateless socialisms,” like the worlds of Ursula Le Guin and Iain Banks. Anarchist socialism gets a fair treatment in The Cassini Division, although sarcastic comments from characters like the unrepentant I.K. Malley helps keep things in perspective.

The novel, among other things, examines what happens when the socialist Solar Union re-establishes contact with the other arm of The Space and Freedom Movement—the anarcho-capitalists of New Mars we read about in The Stone Canal.

MacLeod has a special knack for inventing and describing different cultures, and their dealings with each other, without delivering lectures or being boring. When the crew of a socialist starship pick up their first radio transmissions from New Mars they get to hear “doleful music,” with lyrics about “unemployment, alcohol abuse, desertion, betrayal, sexual frustration, jealousy, religion.” After taking part of this sample of Country & Western they come to the conclusion that life under capitalism must be hell. Without giving away too much of the plot I might add that Lenin’s concept of “useful idiots” takes on a whole new meaning in the context of MacLeod’s story.

If you have read the other two novels you probably will be happy to meet Jonathan Wilde once again. This worthy successor of Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker is still alive and well in MacLeod’s latest novel, although he appears only briefly in the story. Hopefully we will see more of him in the next one.

It’s only been published in Great Britain so far. I got my copy from The Internet Bookshop www.bookshop.co.uk

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