The career path of some writers is easily charted, others less so, and Ken MacLeod has never seemed to have an interest in following the expected route, his novels having embraced social change, political thrillers, domestic dramas, distant planets, the streets of London, the hills and islands of Scotland. Ever the contrarian, his first novel The Star Fraction has two alternate continuations; the optimism of The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division or the bleak trek along The Sky Road, but all his work is seen through the prism of technology, how it changes us, how it enhances us, how it divides us, how it can elevate us or destroy us.
Possibly inspired by his extended tenure as writer in residence at Edinburgh’s Napier University, Descent features a younger set of characters than is typical for MacLeod, tracking them through their final days of school to university and beyond, by his own admission a coming of age novel “looking back on youthful stupidities,” due to the extended timeframe the narrative is less driven than his previous works.
From the opening page, narrator Ryan Sinclair is messed up but self-aware, his near daily spying on his ex-fiancée via his iGlasses only one morally ambiguous suitcase of the emotional baggage he hefts around, though his sardonic wit indicates he could be entertaining company if kept wisely at arm’s length. Having grown up witness to the rebirth of Scotland under “the changes,” industry, employment, regeneration, even spaceshipyards being built on the Clyde, how did his life come so adrift, and why is he plagued by the persistent dream of the stars which becomes a nightmare of falling?
Tracking back to the day Ryan and his best friend Calum were supposed to be studying for exams and went hillwalking instead only to become lost in fog and struck by what appeared to be ball lighting, that experience changed Ryan who began seeing connections that others didn‘t, analysing and linking concepts, perceiving the world differently than his peers. His father at first thinking that it was a hallucination brought on by drugs, Ryan came to believe the incident was a UFO, his conviction only enhanced by a visit from the mysterious Jim Baxter, purportedly representing the Church of Scotland but his zealous insistence that Ryan not investigate further not only spurring him on but indicating that Baxter may in fact be another kind of man in black.
Politics is the backbone in all of MacLeod works, driving The Star Fraction from the militarised ghettoes of London to the independent states of northern England, through the international espionage of The Execution Channel to the native terrorism of The Night Sessions, even in the domestic setting of Intrusion where health policy turns otherwise law abiding citizens into fugitives, but here that element is largely in the background, becoming more relevant when Ryan moves to university, at least to those who take an interest in the indiscretions and associations of his youth.
While it’s clear that MacLeod is enjoying himself as he analyses the UFO phenomenon, satirising abduction experiences with a woman in a Star Trek costume demanding Ryan provide reproductive cells, he also offers rational if purely speculative explanations for a genetic predisposition to susceptibility to any belief system unsupported by evidence alongside more outlandish UFO theories involving covert testing of new technologies, but most interesting is an observation about lab mice grown so accustomed to handling over generations that they have become a subspecies displaying altered responses, invalidating any experiments they are a part of.
Presented as a fictitious memoir, Ryan not knowing his direction for much of the novel and failing to understand or perceive events he is already a part of, it does take too long for the pieces of his convoluted life to fall into place, but despite his problems and his many personal failings, the level of surveillance in the everyday life of the population and the endemic shortages, coffee expensive and meat a luxury, it remains an optimistic future, Ryan reflecting that regardless of the historic appearance to the contrary, good deeds must outnumber the bad, otherwise society could never have achieved anything.
Descent is available now from Orbit
Follow the link for our review of Ken MacLeod’s preceding novel, Intrusion