Beyond the Reach of Earth – Ken MacLeod

Political and military power depends on control; the Earth dominated by three principal multi-national groupings, the Alliance, the Union and the Co-ordinated States, they maintain an awkward peace where all citizens are closely monitored by “friendly” artificial intelligences which encourage interaction and discussion, but beyond the reach of Earth that ubiquitous level of oversight is harder to maintain.

The discovery of near instantaneous faster than light travel having the potential to fundamentally change everything, opening doors to vast resources and new opportunities and simultaneously making conventional war and nuclear deterrents obsolete, of course it was suppressed, the sole province of the group which called itself Black Horizon, now made redundant by the independent rediscovery and application of faster than light technology by a private association of researchers and engineers working out of a Scottish shipyard.

Unlikely pioneers who became household names and folk heroes when the Fighting Chance became the only hope for the doomed floating research base in the clouds of Venus, they are also persona non grata with the representatives of myriad authorities, they are now taking stock of the complex and volatile situation on the distant world of Apis and finding that the reach of Earth is very long indeed.

Unlike the volumes of The Expanse where years or decades can pass, the second volume of Ken MacLeod’s Lightspeed trilogy picks up at the very moment Beyond the Hallowed Sky dramatically concluded, Beyond the Reach of Earth opening with nobody quite on anybody’s side and feelings running high, the destruction of Cloud City with over six hundred lives representing a huge loss for which blame must be apportioned, the events and allegiances helpfully recapped in an introductory synopsis.

Black Horizon now summarily disbanded, what was a “joint secret project” between agencies of different governments reclassified as a conspiracy and the senior officers involved arrested, not only have past misdeeds such as “settling” displaced populations of environmental disasters on habitable worlds been brought to light, but other oddities are now being observed with deeper implications on the wider universe than the strictly human outrage of the relocation of refugees without agreement, oversight or thought to their future welfare.

Primitive humans making tentative steps into the territory of an ancient but uncommunicative alien presence, the explored worlds each hosting rock formations which host the alien intelligence unofficially dubbed the Fermi, their powers and goals are unknown but can be inferred by the evidence to tend towards disseminating life to distant worlds, supporting them by modifying the locality as required.

An impossibility? Perhaps in human understanding, and certainly an anomaly, but as the existence of the simple, functional and adaptable technology of FTL also falls into that category, revealed by equations apparently sent back in time to Lakshmi Nayak by her own future self, what’s one more among comrades? Fortunately, with so much going on, the novel pauses for a midway discussion and analysis by representatives of the various disciplines, smart people at the top of their fields collaborating and considering theories on their strange circumstances, science looking forwards while politics consumes its own tail.

Beyond the Hallowed Sky approaching the ideas presented in Arthur C Clarke’s Space Odyssey sequence and its later Time Odyssey companions, the parallels are acknowledged when one characters quotes 2010, but the realms explored are MacLeod’s own, as are the disparate factions who inhabit them, a spectrum of individuals and intelligences whose backgrounds and experiences form the prism through which they view the new worlds and the people they share them with and whether they see them as potentially a place to stay or simply a stopping point before heading further out or returning home.

Beyond the Reach of Earth is available now from Orbit



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