Beyond the Light Horizon – Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod - Beyond the Light Horizon cover

John Grant is slipping unintentionally, and now that he has started he’s not sure how to stop, having departed in March 2071 but incongruously finding himself at the other end of the near instantaneous journey in his planned orbit of Earth but in the year 1760, his onboard artificial intelligence interface Iskander’s observation that their transit across the sky is already in historic records courtesy of the Chinese Imperial Astronomer of the day scant reassurance when lost in history is not where they are meant to be.

And what of the Fermi? What are their goals, if such a human concept applies to the ancient and largely uncommunicative alien intelligence who until recently inhabited crystalline mountain ranges on Venus, Apis and other worlds? Mathematician Lakshmi Nayak uses observed phenomena as a starting point to understand their apparently instantaneous communication, transmitted rather than carried as bottled messages by faster than light ships, but as a human she fears; might they qualify as “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic?

The concluding volume of Ken MacLeod’s Lightspeed Trilogy, Beyond the Light Horizon again opens with a comprehensive summary of the tangled web of scientific, logistical and political developments of Beyond the Hallowed Sky and Beyond the Reach of Earth, helpful up to the point when everything shifts again in another change as seismic as the withdrawal of the Fermi as it becomes apparent that Nayak’s equations not only allow faster than light travel but that unanticipated time travel can also be an unpredictable and unfortunate side effect.

Any marginal insight into the Fermi and their plans courtesy of the emancipated android Marcus Owen who has previously gone rogue but who claims to be all better now thank you following an epiphany following cybernetic upgrade mediated by the Fermi, is that sufficient reason to earn a level of trust he never enjoyed even before he betrayed, murdered and prompted catastrophe? While he shares information and insights, what if it is not to illuminate but to manipulate and direct towards a specific goal, perhaps one that is not even his own?

An unlikely defender of nature, it was known Apis had abundant indigenous life but it is now inescapable that there is intelligence beyond the Fermi, the spider monkeys demonstrating language, community and anger at the violations humanity has wrought upon their woodlands, now fighting back against a better equipped and more advanced species but with vast numbers on their side, a situation which can only lead to tragedy for both if not forestalled, but protective legislation is double-edged, inconveniencing and controlling those on the ground while leaving loopholes for those who impose it to do as they will.

Existential crises, however, are a long-term concern for people with more immediate practical concerns, and while there are certainly parallels with HAL and the unseen Monolith makers of 2001 there are also charming quirks to be found Beyond the Light Horizon which explore dimensions other than those of Arthur C Clarke’s Space and Time Odysseys which never presented an ancient civilisation of dinosaurs fluent in French, learned as the first language of refugees dumped on their planet decades before, unwanted humans displaced and discarded.

Being a MacLeod novel, Beyond the Light Horizon is of course aware of the political culture which drives colonisation and exploitation of resources and the duty of the state to the collective rather than the reverse, and like John Wyndham he can propose, explore and sometimes reject whole models of social and economic change breaking bread rather than the flow of the novel, conversation over dinner relevant to matters at hand both current and potentially very long-term, expansion across the galaxy not an undertaking for those who fail to plan carefully, something of which MacLeod could never be accused as he arrives at his conclusion so flawlessly it could almost be considered predestination or self-fulfilling paradox.

Beyond the Light Horizon is available now from Orbit

Ken MacLeod - Beyond the Light Horizon cover detail



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