The Stone Canal, second in Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution series, is a difficult book to write a review of. The reason is the story’s structure: the book is broken in half, chapters alternating to tell the first and second halves separately, with the ending joining the two together at the middle into a single whole. The details at the end of one half reveal important information about the beginning of the other, and vice versa. It’s quite easy to wander into spoiler territory while writing a summary. (Be warned, the majority of reviews I have read spoiled large portions and some of the major surprises in the novel.) It’s best to start with MacLeod’s introduction and leave the rest to instinct and hope.
In classic sci-fi style, the opening page of The Stone Canal features a man waking from the dead in the middle of a desert on a strange planet. Named Jonathan Wilde, the last memory he has is being shot by a fair-weather friend, David Reid, on Earth. A robot is standing beside Wilde, waiting for him to come to consciousness, and together the two wander into the nearest town. Feeling like the Wild West, the town is on a planet called New Mars and is riddled with canals, rundown concrete buildings, and a healthy mood of chaos and freedom amidst the robots, net tech, and biological misfits. Also walking the streets of the town is a cyborg woman. Named Dee Model, she is fleeing her owner after experiencing the epiphany that she has the right to her own autonomy. Seeing Wilde in a bar, the two have a brief ‘don’t I know you moment’ before the goons arrive. It is not the last time the two cross paths.
The second chapter and other half of the story begins in Glasgow of the 1970s. Two university students, Jonathan Wilde and David Reid, spend their days getting drunk, chasing girls, and arguing politics. Wilde is an anarchist and Reid is a Trotskyist, so the two have many late night discussions and escapades with the ladies on the town, both settling for the same lass. Political views and emotions struggle for dominance and the duo have a falling out, but it’s not the last. World events slowly separate themselves from real history, and Wilde and Reid go on to become major players in politics on an Earth that is anything but stable or predictable. The reason Wilde is awoken in the middle of the desert is ultimately revealed, but not before a rollercoaster of technological evolution intervenes.
The ideas fly ever faster and more furious in The Stone Canal, a novel of post-human dimensions despite its classic beginning. Consciousness uploads, A.I., wormholes, WWIII, virtual existences — the story screams Neumann’s singularity and futurism. And in another dimension, the air — already saturated with cigarette smoke — is thick with political nuance. Whether the discussion of socialism, neo-socialism, socio-anarchism, anarcho-capitalism, and all other manner of political diversity has any bearing on the narrative is up to the reader, however. Plot takes precedence over world building and MacLeod’s political vision is located in dialogue rather than the details (unlike Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, for example). Thus, for those who like their tech fast, hard hitting, and underpinned by a skein of political factions, The Stone Canal is for you.
Though this is only his second novel, MacLeod shows every sign of having his writing chops on the road to somewhere great. Occasional bits of incongruous present tense narrative and transcribed Irish accents ripple the waters, but generally the narrative proceeds with a confidence and skill that the average sci-fi hack these days cannot produce. A satirical Heinlein-ian wit forever lurking below surface, MacLeod has a sense of humor that will either have the reader chuckling or perusing as if nothing ever happened. The interplay of situation, politics, and in-jokes is the comedic norm; those who “get it” will enjoy it, while those who don’t may be annoyed. Not a lyricist, MacLeod churns out rock hard sentences that move the story in a style that betters rather than worsens the novel.
Nevertheless, The Stone Canal has some issues. If the love triangle Wilde and Reid work themselves into is not the usage of an overdone trope, then the presentation of the third member certainly is. Secondly, Dee Model can be said to take matters into her own hands, but the three other major female players (Annette, Myra, and Meg) are generally more stereotypical than quality secondary characters. A third problem is the quantity of the technological changes that take place. The closer one draws to the end of the novel, the more these advances blur together, making one big tech soup where anything is possible with the limits nowhere in sight. Some may prefer this type of story, but for me the phases of transition barely had time to inform character behavior before another reality took over, making for an unsettled read that distracted from any point the author was trying to make. But that’s just me.
Another problem is that the scope of the story seems too big for the characters at times. Like Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin, universe-spanning events are being channeled through a couple of characters involved in personal problems that are anything but cosmic. If you’re willing to suspend disbelief, then The Stone Canal flows easily. If not, university rivals fighting over the same woman who end up in the most influential of positions may be as weak as it is. Further problems, well, the amount of smoking and drinking, damn; I was hacking a black lung by the end.
In the end, The Stone Canal is a novel that gives equal sway to intelligent commentary and a romp through outright no-holds-barred sci-fi. Written in 1996 before much of the post-human deluge hit the stands, MacLeod deserves credit for being amongst the first, even if his name is not as well known. Since it occasionally overburdens the personal nature of the story, some readers will find the more-than-brisk evolution of tech distracting, while others will think it’s just what the doctor ordered. The usage of political ideas is not unlike Schismatrix or The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, so fans of Bruce Sterling and Robert Heinlein may want to have a try, while those who read The Star Fraction will be excited to learn the series does not slow down.