The Star Fraction is another MacLeod-authored political science fiction novel.  Unlike my previous experience with MacLeod, however, The Star Fraction really fired me up; politically speaking, but also as a work of speculative fiction.  The comparison which springs immediately to mind is Gwyneth Jones' Bold as Love - indeed, The Star Fraction feels almost like a what-came-next for that novel, a response to it, but more powerful and better (with some really cool humour).

The world of The Star Fraction appears to be set in the non-too-distant future, although MacLeod is careful never to really give a date on it; first published in 1995, that seems to be a good thing, since whilst some references have become a little dated (although others seem more prescient - Iraq has become a verb for aerial submission, Afghanistan is a tribal mess after increasing American intervention), the majority of the book is relatively timeless.  What MacLeod has changed, however, is quite significant (and appears to stretch into the past - there's an odd reference to A. W. Benn's History of Western Philosophy).  The UK has been a socialist Republic and then had the monarchy forcibly restored, before tiny free states and leftist splitter-groups have sprung up all over the place, and technology has been advanced significantly beyond where it stands today; The Star Fraction paints this world excellently, although occasionally one does wish it took the time to be a little more clear about what happened to take us from now to then.

The main characters of The Star Fraction are absolutely fantastic.  Moh Kohn, our primary protagonist, is a Trotskyist (and very ideologically driven) who believes in the revolution, but not in the allies many of the other leftist factions have made.  He's an intelligent, well-written character, who has a dark past and all sorts of strange events relating to it happening throughout the novel; indeed, he becomes programmed as the carrier for an AI for much of the novel.  However, he's well-portrayed as a leftist with big ideas and a big heart; a very strong character.  Janis Taine, a biologist working on a project that is verboten by the authorities, is drawn into his circle, and is an equally strong character; much less ideological, she's a well-thought-out figure and written with a sympathetic, sensitive eye for detail.  She's a strong woman who comes into her own as the novel goes on, gaining revolutionary convictions and ideas, as well as becoming more of a humanist than is obvious early on.  Finally, Jordan Brown, a capitalist atheist brought up in a Christianist free-state part of London, is a stock-market jockey; he gains an awareness of the outside world, of humanity, and of the politics of the world as the novel goes on.  He also appears to become more sympathetic to faith, as his libertarianism asserts itself with greater strength; it's an excellent piece of characterisation, as he would be easy to make a strawman but MacLeod treats him sympathetically and well.  Indeed, even the antagonists are human, acting from the best of motives as they see them, and this make The Star Fraction a thoughtful and intelligent novel in a way few are; MacLeod can see through the political opposition to their basic humanity, and this makes his writing much more thoughtful.

The plot of The Star Fraction is also strong.  Drawing together multiple plot-lines down into one unit, MacLeod explores the build up to and beginning of a revolution to unite the DisUnited Kingdom; we see it from multiple perspectives, including that of those who don't believe it is possible.  MacLeod paints a portrait of the left as factionalised, disunited, at war with itself (often literally), and threatened; this plays into the plot strongly as various factions within the left come to the fore or receded, and equally as various factions of the anti-revolutionary movements (little more united than the left) interchange.  The role of technology and AI in the revolution is central, and MacLeod portrays it excellently, with a very human sensibility; and equally, the role of people and their basic motives is important.  It's a plot that barrels along and, whilst not always simple or clear, comes strong in the end, taking no prisoners as it goes, with a particularly tragic ending.

In sum, The Star Fraction is a fantastic, deeply political novel; MacLeod's ability to paint a picture of the factionalised left in this future Britain plays into some excellent characterisation and some powerful writing.  Brilliant, and revolutionary, work; I'd highly recommend it, especially to the lefties out there.
This is a good novel; a crime-thriller, with more than a hint of Blade Runner and very influenced by MacLeod's religious politics and the modern religio-political atmosphere, Night Sessions is a well-rounded novel in the style of writers like Ian Rankin.  The difference is, of course, that MacLeod dares to imagine the future, and the crimes - and world - that we'll inhabit.

The characters are somewhat typical for a detective novel - the Kinky Kazakh (a wonderful character) excluded - in that they fulfil the necessary archetypes to keep it moving, keep it on the right wavelength, and keep it troped up.  MacLeod's not exactly reinventing the wheel with Ferguson, Campbell, Skulk et al. but he is using them more effectively than many, equally trope-ridden writers would; that alone is somewhat praise-worthy.

His plot's rather better, and more convoluted, bringing high-concept technology, religious fundamentalism, and terrorism together in a wonderful way; his various groups, plots, individuals and plans run together and apart and clash wonderfully interestingly, and the complexity just keeps on growing as the novel proceeds at roughly the pace of a freight train. He ties all the elements - the secularism, the post-religious world, the post-global energy crisis world, and the post-American hegemony - together to create a plot that draws on the whole planet to come to its explosive conclusion.

A good, fast-paced thrilling read.

This is somewhat by-the-numbers space opera, with a little stereotypical Scottishness (or even Glesga) thrown in for good measure.  MacLeod's setting is about 350 years in the future, after the Hard Rapture - a sort of combination of the Matrix and Terminator, the ascension of AI and its revolt against humanity.

The plot's a speedy mover, albeit occasionally somewhat nonsensical and/or opaque (there are sections of the plot that just, straightforwardly, make no sense, and characters' actions are not governed by their motives or personalities...); following a variety of characters we see galactic conflict in military, social and political terms between the factionalised remnants of humanity based on a combination of poor stereotyping and bad humour.

The same problems, unfortunately, also tend to apply to the characters; their decisions bear no relation to each other or themselves, let alone to their motivations; their logic appears to be "What'll make the plot move and also be kinda funny?"; and the emotions are muted or overblown by turns, but so badly and unsympathetically written as to not actually exist. They are marked as different by their mannerisms - but it's their mannerisms alone, which harm as much as help comprehension, which distinguish them from each other.

The humour does at least have moments of brilliance, if rare ones, although the jokes tend to be pushed farther than they can really bare (MacLeod pushes things to beyond breaking point more than once).  There is also a tendency to recycle and reuse - the jokes pop up again and again and again, removing from them the last vestiges of humour and from the novel the last traces of dignity it had salvaged.

All in all, the moments which are enjoyable were few and far between, whilst the tedium and nonsense was packed thick and fast.  Not recommended, people.

(Originally read 23/02/2010, reviewed on paper, now typed up)


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February 2012

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