Volume 23, Number 02, Winter 2005

Newton’s Wake: A Space Opera

By Ken MacLeod

Tor Books, 2004, $24.95
ISBN: 0-7653-0503-8
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
November 2005

Over the past decade and a bit, a new recurring theme has emerged in science fiction: the Avoided Singularity. This is one of the major elements in Ken MacLeod’s new novel.

Vernor Vinge’s early fiction worked out the idea that advancing technology would eventually create superhuman intelligence, either by enhancing human brains and minds, or by creating better digital minds. But actually writing about worlds that contain such intelligence is arguably impossible. John W. Campbell used to warn his writers that no one could write about a superhuman mind convincingly, because such a mind was necessarily beyond human understanding or empathy. An entire society (“civilization” may not be an applicable word) of such minds could not be used as a setting for fiction in any meaningful way. Vinge coined the term “the Singularity” for the possible future emergence of such a society, by analogy with the singularities at the centers of black holes. If this is true, then the old science fictional project, the realistic description of future societies, is impossible to carry out.

Vinge’s later books, A Fire upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, took up an alternative approach: writing fiction in a setting where the Singularity either was not attained, or was attained somewhere else, comfortably offstage. Other writers have done the same, including Charles Stross, in Singularity Sky and his new Iron Sunrise—and, and Ken MacLeod, especially in his latest book. The result is somewhat akin to E. E. Smith’s Lensman novels, where the superhumanly intelligent Arisians are kept offstage most of the time, occasionally acting as plot enablers but not fully revealing themselves; in fact, the goal of this approach is to create space opera—but a space opera of ideas as well as of action. Surprisingly and pleasantly often, those ideas often include a version of libertarianism.

Newton’s Wake is set in the aftermath of the Hard Rapture, a disastrous war that followed the occurrence of a singularity on Earth, but left behind human societies scattered through the galaxy. One of these human groups, the Carlyles, are entrepreneurs trading in a disturbing sort of merchandise: digital records of human personalities. The plot of this novel traces the consequences of one of their expeditions finding more than they bargained for. Its working out produces a story filled with both amazing technology and violent conflict—enough of both to more than justify MacLeod’s subtitle.

This book also shows us MacLeod’s mind at play, notably in his portrayal of future societies. There is, for example, the playwright on one of his future societies, who specializes in grand historical dramas in the Shakespearean style about events of the 20th and 21st centuries, such as a portrayal of the fall of the Soviet Union in blank verse, with Leonid Brezhnev as a tragic hero. Other scenes show the protagonist encountering a society that has adopted most of the business practices of free-market capitalism as socialist doctrine, while still invoking Marx and Mao to justify them. A fine set piece has two singers portraying human beings as the Lovecraftian horrors of a machine world:

That does not sleep which dreams in the deep.
We’re the Great Old Ones now!

There isn’t as much intellectual substance in this book as MacLeod’s previously published series; readers of those two series won’t find many ideas they haven’t seen before. Newton’s Wake is effectively Kenneth MacLeod Lite. It is, as it says, a space opera. But, precisely because of that, it may serve very well to bring a larger audience to MacLeod’s writing, and to what’s being called “new space opera.” It has the true MacLeod flavor with a lot of froth. Read it when you’re in the mood for entertainment; you’ll find it here.

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