Descent, the latest in politically charged science fiction from Ken MacLeod, a veteran of the genre, is what might be best described as “hard” sci-fi. Star Trek/Wars then, it ain’t. Although of course if you were familiar with any of MacLeod’s other work you would probably know that, but I wasn’t, so let’s just start by clarifying that if you were expecting ray guns and camp coming out of the ears, it’s not that kind of sci-fi.
The book begins with a prologue that seems to acknowledge this, bombarding you with reams of technical jargon, either plot specific and thus unintelligible until much later in the book, or presupposing a working knowledge of science and technology evidently higher than my GCSE B/B Applied Science double award. Followed by a whistle stop introduction to the near future setting, which is more likely to give the casual reader a headache than the faintest idea of what’s going on. As I say, Dorothy, we aren’t on Tatooine anymore.
Despite the somewhat abruptness of the prologue, Descent starts off slowly. The initial setting of Scottish teenagers in suburban Inverclyde veers dangerously close to making you believe you’ve been conned into reading a twee, Scottish Stand by Me with faintly Orwellian political overtures and every lazy cliché about E.T and his flying saucer. It does get going though, (not to mention the UFO element of the plot proving anything but cliché) and gathers speed increasingly rapidly as the book progresses. The sparing attitude to clear exposition regarding the setting and plot both equal parts complex and mysterious also ends up playing in its favour. At its heart, Descent is a conspiracy thriller which progressively engrosses as it gains momentum. It constantly hints, teases and builds gradually to a crescendo which, well, never quite comes, but we’ll get to that.
MacLeod himself describes Descent as “bloke-lit”. The book’s main character, Ryan Sinclair, is a kind of Holden Caulfield-esque type. Angsty, intelligent and all sorts of emotionally maladjusted. With the book written entirely from Ryan’s first person perspective, Descent can be seen in many ways as an exploration of the tribulations of early adulthood, and the mistakes made as a result of the special brand of naivety, internal confusion and occasional pig headedness generally exhibited during that period by the male of the species. The narration quite nicely carries this theme by juxtaposing Ryan’s intellectual diatribes and expansive technical knowledge with wry and often coarse assessments and afterthoughts which rather amusingly capture the essence of the young, clever and faintly pissed off modern (or near future) man. Descent presents this study of the young male psyche against a backdrop of a setting which manages to tap into almost every fear held by anyone about the current political climate. The speculative near future world of Descent seemingly covers every major political issue of our day which appears to be approaching boiling point. Touching on themes of religion, race, economics, civil liberties, the future of science and technology and countless others presenting a vision of the future which is at once comprehensive, eerie and most importantly, entirely plausible. It’s all rather fine and profound, but on one level I was left with a slight twinge of disappointment when the book’s plot eventually shied away from the epic climax I assumed it to be promising. The tension builds almost to breaking point, but then never really goes anywhere.
It can be forgiven however, because it never particularly promised to be action-packed; it’s a book of ideas or rather, musings, because it never manages to lurch into a full on transparent manifesto in the vein of other political missives like Atlas Shrugged. A thinking man’s book then, about thinking men, for thinking men by a thinking man to be thought on. An experience rather than a thrill, as of course so much science fiction not of a Trek-Wars vein is. What can I say then? It’s slow starting, at parts dauntingly heavy with complex ideas and technical language. But what do you expect? Its political sci-fi, and good, original political sci-fi for that matter. Which in this day and age is increasingly hard to find, on both counts.