Beyond the Hallowed Sky – Ken MacLeod

It was in London in 2067 when Lakshmi Nayak received the impossible letter, written by herself and containing equations of a proof she had never formulated, sent to her from a place she had never been to and making the promise of faster than light travel, the implication being that it would also somehow open the door to time travel or else the letter could not have arrived, a breakfast at which even Alice would ask for a second coffee if not something stronger.

The solution to that riddle brings another on its heels: the Fermi Paradox, which asks if there is life elsewhere in the universe why does it remain silent, has only one solution as the confirmation of faster than light travel would mean any advanced species would have made itself known, thus humanity must be alone or at least the first to make the discovery, if the theory can be harnessed into a workable prototype.

The problem is the world is divided into different political camps, the oceans have risen and a theoretical paper of fringe science from the author of Quantum gravitational effects in early-universe cosmology attracts only the wrong kind of attention, from those wishing to discredit the work or too eager to believe, yet with the global web of omniscient artificial intelligence connecting the dots someone or something other than fate seems to be guiding Lakshmi north to Scotland and further, beyond the hallowed sky…

The first in Ken MacLeod’s Lightspeed trilogy, set only fifty years in the future, it may seem there has been little time for drift from the present yet if the last century has taught us anything it is that the rate of change is accelerating and at times Beyond the Hallowed Sky can be tough going because the volume of information is so dense, every expectation and assumption overturned by five decades of rapid history, political and technological.

The only thing which has remained the same is Scottish village life, drinking, talking, laughing, the workers at the shipyards keeping their counsel and wary of newcomers, loyal to each other and the past, always conscious of the military base on the other side of the bay and of the things that weren’t supposed to be seen, submarines which rise above the waves and vanish in a flash of light.

That alone might have been more than sufficient to furnish a novel for some writers, but in only the first volume MacLeod is already loading the bases: arriving at Venus is Marcus Owen, a spy whose cover was blown along with his identity, unaware himself that he was a robot, and now assigned on a mission which cannot fail, himself and all the others who live on the floating cloud city considered expendable should it become necessary.

And farther still there is Apis, a habitable planet of crystalline formations which defy analysis or explanation yet which react violently to attempts to test them or take samples; there are some who claim to be able to communicate with them, but the messages they receive provide no useful answers, only add to the pile of mysteries, not least of which is how an alien world can have life apparently descended from primordial forms of Earth life, save for the bees, curiously identical in every way to their modern terrestrial cousins.

Beyond the Hallowed Sky a novel in which the apparently impossibly happens with alarming regularity, if there is an underlying reason which can be parsed and understood there will be a mechanism which can be harnessed but as so often people get in the way, politics and protocol interfering with best intentions, friends and enemies two sides of the same digital currency, and while goals may apparently align there is nobody so well placed to thwart an endeavour as a collaborator.

A springboard to the stars, even if the immediate challenges can be met with neither body nor spirit broken, the implications of faster than light travel are enormous and profound, a new life on a new world, unfettered by the constraints and disappointments of the past, a doorway which once opened will become a floodgate through which will pour the best and the brightest, the ambitious and the most disillusioned, each departure leaving behind a void as profound as the vacuum they leap through to their distant destination.

Beyond the Hallowed Sky is available now from Orbit