Volume 18, Number 1, March, 2000

The Cassini Division

By Ken MacLeod

(Tor, 190. $22.95)
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

The Cassini Division is everything LFS members look for in a Prometheus Award nominee. It offers a vision of a radically different (and hard sf) future, its political themes are clearly libertarian, and it's also a sophisticated piece of writing in a wittily allusive prose style. In any ordinary year it would be the obvious choice for the award; in 1999, it will make the choice even harder as it goes up against the other obvious choices that came out in a year of literary delights.

To start with a small point, the allusiveness, Macleod's chapter titles are a series of tributes to classic works of science fiction and utopianism, starting with Looking Backward and eventually reaching In the Days of the Comet. Other literary sources are echoed as well; for example, the protagonist's spaceship is named Terrible Beauty from a poem by William Butler Yeats. Beyond such allusions, MacLeod's use of language is playful in the best way, starting with the title, which turns out to be the name of the only elite military force in a communist anarchist solar system, chosen as a joking reference to the dark band in Saturn's rings.

The protagonist, Ellen May Ngwethu, is a trusted member of the Cassini Division, who personally remembers the global struggle to overthrow capitalism. But MacLeod's future also contains anarchocapitalists. the "non-cos" of Earth and the entire anarchocapitalist society of New Mars. In Ngwethu's encounters with them Macleod carries off the interesting trick of showing anarchocapitalism through the eyes of a character who finds its anarchism perfectly natural, but its capitalism-not so much wrong as incomprehensibly surreal, with customs of buying and selling and bargaining that make no sense. MacLeod brings this off as skillfully as Kipling did in As Easy as A.B.C. with his narrator's bemused account of the incomprehensible practices of democracy.

Both societies. communist and capitalist, face the challenge of a third society: the machine intelligences of Jupiter, themselves descended from human space colonists but now more like Wells's "intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic." This three-cornered conflict, combined with the internal disagreements of the two human cultures, makes an interesting and complex story with numerous plot twists.

MacLeod's story gains interest, from a libertarian viewpoint, from the fact that his protagonist and many of his other character are motivated by adherence to a system of ideas, called "the true knowledge." MacLeod writes that "Its originator … had acquired their modern enlightenment from battered, ancient editions of the works of Stirner. Nietzsche, Marx, Engels, Dietzgen, Darwin, and Spencer, which made up the entire philosophical content of their labour-camp library" In short, their philosophical base is Stirnerite amoralist individualism. Their application, in Ngwethu's words when she first comes to believe in "the true knowledge," addressed to an early advocate of transhumanity, is this:

"'We are as gods!' I snarl, 'We are the top predator here. You can become machines if you like, but then you'll be dead, and we'll be alive, and we'll treat you as machines. If we can't use you, we'll smash you up'"

"'If you can," he says.

"I look straight back at him. 'If we can.'"

In other words, MacLeod grounds his plot solidly in serious philosophical questions, and motivates his characters by their beliefs about the answers to those questions. The result is a novel that combines equal measures of physical action and intellectual drama, in a complex and imaginative hard science fiction setting.

The fact that this is the first of MacLeod's novels to gain immediate American publication is an added bonus. With The Cassini Division, many American readers will discover a writer whose work deserves an international audience.

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