Engines of Light

September 29th, 2007

MacLeod continues to create interesting worlds filled with interesting (if not always entirely believable) characters and wildly variable political and economic systems that always manage to trend towards socialist libertarianism. And I keep reading them, and enjoying them, which may or may not tell you something about my own political leanings and/or tolerances. This trilogy of books starting with Cosmonaut Keep, bridged by Dark Light, and concluded with Engine City, is one of those rare interstellar epics where the speed of light is inviolable. Travel, then is accomplished in ships capable of essentially transforming themselves and their contents into light itself; massless and timeless, the traveler arrives at his destination in the same subjective moment as his departure, while years (or decades, or millennia) pass in the frames of reference of the worlds in between. Turns out that extra-terrestrials and their servant species have been relocating life-forms from Earth to an area on the other side of the galaxy for many millions of years, for their own reasons and without much consultation of those being moved, and the primary thrust of these books is the tale of those displaced colonists, impossibly distant in time and space from their homeworld, trying to establish balance and trade with other worlds and species. Minor spoilers (necessary to describe the setting) await you after the cut… Cosmonaut Keep, however, is told in two timelines…one on the world of Mingulay, the most distant of the settled planets of humanity’s “Second Sphere,” and the other on Earth in the mid-21st century. The latter is first person, ostensibly a recollection of those events by a survivor of them and a character in the former, a more genre-traditional omniscient third story of the descendants of a vessel unique among the known human-inhabited worlds…a vessel crewed and piloted by humans alone. The rest of the humans in the Second Sphere were brought there essentially against their will, in vessels crewed by humanoid descendants of Sauropod dinosaurs and piloted by giant squid. The “Cosmonauts” who arrived in their vessel at Mingulay, however, had essentially built their interstellar ship from a kit…a kit with rather poor documentation and navigational controls. Stuck on the other side of the galaxy, they soon realized they would need to make this largely primitive world their home, and set themselves (and later their children) to solving the puzzle of interstellar navigation. They also soon discovered that somehow, through some cocktail of life-extending drugs taken on Old Earth that they could neither isolate or replicate, that they were effectively immortal. Soon the Cosmonauts wandered from their initial settlement and tasks, but their descendants, having assumed a degree of aristocracy by their advanced knowledge, continued the project alone. Gregor Cairns, one of the youngest of the descendants of the Cosmonaut (and narrator of our 21st century storyline, explaining how the “cosmonauts” got into this fix) Matt Cairns, has finally discovered the solution that will allow interstellar navigation, and with dreams of establishing true human independence and trade (and also a wish to woo the charming daughter of a trading family) he sets out to try and track down his ancestor Matt and get himself onto the original human ship, the Bright Star, still in orbit around Mingulay. Various adventures and romances, in both timelines, and a heaping portion of geekery to relate to in Matt’s story especially, make this a rousing and relatively straightforward adventure, and leave you craving more. The second novel, (which is, to my immense annoyance, not overtly labeled as such) Dark Light, is in many ways more what I had come to expect from MacLeod than Cosmonaut Keep. Less influenced by the disruptive knowledge of the late-coming cosmonauts, Mingulay’s closest interstellar neighbor Croaton has a human population divided between industrial city-dwellers and Luddite-esque primitive hill-folk. Crashing (almost literally) into the staid bureaucracies and tribal societies of this world come the Cosmonauts of Mingulay, first Matt’s fellow Cosmonaut (and Socialist hero of Europe) Grigory Volkov arrives via a trading vessel, and then the Bright Star which Matt and Gregor had used to successfully make the first human controlled interstellar voyage with. Volkov, partly to achieve his own ends and partly because he truly believes in his Cause, agitates the industrial workers of Croaton into a state that is ripe for a Communist revolution. When Matt and Gregor realize how difficult accomplishing this goal of Volkov’s would make their own plans and aspirations, they ally themselves with the primitive tribes-people and some level-headed townspeople to moderate the breakneck changes Volkov is wreaking. Along the way, the Cosmonauts learn something of the motivations among the powerful beings that sent them to this corner of the galaxy, and of the galactic war that they might soon be vulnerable to. The conclusion of the trilogy, Engine City, finds Volkov in the heart of the Second Sphere, Nova Babylonia. Their society, ancient and dignified, is unbearably stagnant and hidebound. Volkov, fresh from the revelations of Croaton and bearing knowledge of the coming invasion, perceives that (once again) it would be easier to create a new society capable of defending against the coming alien menace than it would be to adapt the one he already found in place. Meanwhile, Gregor has retired with his wife to raise a family and do scientific research back on Mingulay, where humanity’s newfound technological parity has brought a level of equality to their relationship with the Saurs and other humanoids that had never been possible previously. Together, they formed a new, richer culture and began to start their own colonies, spreading out from Mingulay in a young sphere of their own. Advancing technologically, now, to levels surpassing those of their Earthly ancestors, they encounter the first of the aliens they had been forewarned of…an encounter which changes everything. As always, MacLeod insists that you get a heaping helping of thought-provocation to go with your adventure. The setting, in many regards more fanciful than his “Fall Revolution” novels, perhaps helps humanize his characters somewhat…I certainly found Gregor and Matt more easy to relate to than any of that series’ primaries. Although the in-world effectiveness of the politics still strikes me oftentimes as impossibly optimistic, that too seems moderated in these books of adventure, conspiracy and diplomacy. Although not MacLeod at his best (see my (hopefully) soon to come review of Learning the World for that), you can clearly see his skill as a character-author evolving in this series, and it’s got my strong recommendation.

Leave a Reply