Volume 26, Number 1, Fall 2007

The Execution Channel

By Ken MacLeod

Tor, 2007
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
Fall 2007

An old joke about Hollywood says, “Start with an earthquake and build to a climax.” Ken MacLeod’s latest novel does something very similar: in the first few pages, the central character gets a phone call telling him that a base in Scotland leased to the United States Air Force has been destroyed by a nuclear bomb. After that, MacLeod really does carry the reader forward to an unexpected climax. As this may suggest, this is something of a thriller, set in the very near future, something of a departure for MacLeod, whose previous fiction has largely dealt with the distant future, outer space, and radical transformations of humanity by new technology. In this book, his concerns are terrorism, espionage, and the repressive policies adopted by governments in the name of opposing terrorism.

As a thriller, this book is much more in the spirit of John Le Carré than of Ian Fleming. Much of the action is cerebral; most of the characters conceal their motives and their goals from each other, and corruption is commonplace. At best, the choice appears to be to serve a lesser evil. In fact, this is a warning against the evil that governments do in the name of fighting evil.

The novel’s title refers to one of its literary devices: An Internet source that transmits images of people being put to death, all over the world. This functions like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, constantly reminding the reader of what the stakes are in this world. But it also serves as another device from Greek tragedy: At a key point, it becomes a deus ex machina, revealing a hidden truth that shapes the plot and transforms the characters.

At the same time, this isn’t just a straightforward extrapolation into the future. Rather, it’s an alternate history, with a departure point in the very recent past, close to the end of the second millennium. I’m not entirely sure why MacLeod made this choice, but it does enable him to make one point, one that readers of Prometheus will find familiar: How little difference there is between major political parties, and how ready they all are to use evil methods.

This is a cautionary tale, then; its premise is If This Goes On. About midway through, MacLeod states his theme clearly, and it’s one libertarians will sympathize with:

Tears sprang to her eyes, as they always did when the thought struck her that that particular prerogative was back: the right of the sovereign to condemn, to put to the question, without due process and for reasons of state; that on that sore point all the Revolutions in Britain and America had been for nothing. That America had been for nothing; that dismayed her.

That’s not all that’s going on here; the novel’s ending is a complete surprise—even though MacLeod lays the groundwork for it by his discussion of Heim Theory. This is actually rather a good choice as a science-fictional premise: Heim’s work is fringe science, but unlike outright crackpot theories, it actually makes predictions, some of which are disturbingly accurate enough to give it a measure of literary credibility. Where many recent technothrillers have been about averted apocalypses, events that would transform the world if they became known, MacLeod shows events that do transform the world. Whether this transformation is a libertarian one seems debatable, and I’m not sure if this is a libertarian novel. Still, it certainly warns against things that libertarians also fear.

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