She remembered sitting on the sofa beside her father and his explaining the difference between AK47s and M-16s, and how that was no guide to who had supplied the weapons to whatever gang was waving them about. [...] As far as she could recall, he didn't systematically impart the same arcana to her brother Alec. It was as if her father thought that this was the sort of thing a girl should know, and might not learn from anyone else, whereas a boy could be expected to pick it up for himself.
Now that Roisin thought about it, the knowledge had been more useful to her at university than it would ever have been to Alec in the Army.
It's time, at last, to kick off this year's EA reviews of the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist. First up is The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod (whose previous novel Learning the World I discussed back in 2006), a near-future/alternate history spy thriller of the world (continually) at war.
I start this review on a personal note, since the start of the book gave me a very personal kick to the stomach. We join things just as news is breaking about a massive explosion in the tiny Fife town of Leuchars - a place most notable for being home to an RAF base and to the train station that serves St Andrews, the university town in which my fellow Alexandrians and I spent our happy, bookish, and somewhat hazy undergraduate years. The idea of Leuchars razed to the ground was a thoroughly disquieting one - not least for it being such an unlikely target, up there on the east coast of Scotland - and it launched me into the tense mood of the novel in a quite serendipitous way. (Nor would it be the last instance of serendipity in my reading of The Execution Channel, of which more below.)
The incident at Leuchars is recorded on a mobile phone, and the footage broadcast on the national news. Speculation is immediately rife - was it a nuclear bomb? a munitions accident? the work of terrorists? - and immediately both misleading and actively damaging, in a pattern that is repeated throughout the story. The whole thing sends the already crumbling, fragile British public - worn down by years of terrorist attacks and disasters, ground down by years of increasingly repressive government security measures - into screaming panic. People flee the region and the feared nuclear fallout, there is a wave of 'revenge' attacks on British Muslims, operatives of several different governments follow leads and leak careful disinformation on- and offline, bloggers dig and speculate and raise conspiracy theories. Confusion reigns.
But one person has seen more than the jerky phone recording. Roisin, a student at a small peace protest camp in Fife with (arguably) more guts and fantasies of espionage than self-preservation instincts, was illicitly monitoring the American-dominated base that night:
This was what had happened.
Roisin Travis crept among dark conifers, towards a light. She carried a heavy camera with a long-range lens. She had to make an effort not to laugh: she felt like some daft UFO-chaser, following a light seen through trees. She knew she looked like an alien herself in a thin, hooded coverall, with gloves and face-masking scarf of the same insulating black material. Even worn over nothing but jeans and T-shirt, the coverall was far too warm to be comfortable. The notion was that, by containing her body's heat, it made her less visible in the infrared. She suspected a flaw in this reasoning.
She photographs the covert arrival of a strange object, a four metre-long black cylinder. Only a nick-of-time text message from her brother - a soldier posted to one of the Central Asian theatres of war, warning her of a security sweep in the area - draws her away in time. Before the next day is out, her spy games have become dizzyingly real: police and secret services alike are in hot pursuit of her and her photographs, and they will use every instrument of their new draconian powers to get it.
Meanwhile, her father, James, finds himself repeatedly in the wrong place at the wrong time, in such a way - in combination with the hunt for his daughter, and the security leak represented by his son's text message - as to put the authorities on his trail, too. James Travis, however, really is or has been a spy, albeit of a murky and nebulous sort; here, as elsewhere, the style and shorthand of clear-cut Cold War espionage tale (his name is James, after all!), that genre of the clash of ideological titans, are set in contrast to this near-future world's altogether messier matrix of motives, loyalties and betrayals.
From here, the plot twists and turns its satisfyingly tense, fast-paced way through what is to all appearances a taut Cold War-esque thriller, with a hefty dose of twenty-first-century civil liberties paranoia, as Roisin and her family find themselves the victims of a system meant to protect them. In the space of days, Britain reels from one terrorist attack to another - an oil refinery explosion, a motorway bridge collapse - and the various characters, however nominally powerful and informed they might be, scramble to keep up.
It is this last point that is the book's key motif. At no point does any single character - not the English spook Maxine, not the well-connected conspiracy-minded US blogger Mark Dark, not the US government-employed disinformation specialists Bob and Anne-Marie, not French spy Gauthier, and certainly not Roisin or James or Alec - know the whole truth. Nor, more importantly, do any of them see the real significance of what they do know, and start fitting together the pieces rather than forcing them into patterns after their preconceptions.
The novel is filled with information, and media for its distribution, of every imaginable type: photographs, video, TV news reports, blogs and other online sources, memos, transcripts, intelligence reports, satellite images, and CCTV footage (this last on the titular Execution Channel, a mysterious guerilla broadcast of state-sponsored dissident and insurgent executions around the world). But this glut of information hinders as much, or more, than it helps - lacking the context, lacking the trust, lacking the lateral (and sometimes very literal) thinking required to understand it, it is useless. It is also a battleground in its own right, with numerous agencies and individuals competing to obfsucate and distract their perceived opponents. Bob and Anne-Marie are the frontline of this, carrying out their superiors' orders through political astroturfing, controlled leaks, and fake or hacked blogs, something that Roisin becomes an unwitting victim of - her brother is secretly arrested by British intelligence, and his blog turned to Bob and Anne-Marie's ends, but she has no idea:
She was glad that Alec was all right, that so far he hadn't been caught up in this. She'd checked his blog before she'd left Evangeline's place - it had recently been updated and he sounded fine, dropping odd hints that the flap had been all about some kind of unidentified flying objects over mountains. She guessed that he was trying to step away from the indiscreet allusion to Fife.
More often, however, the truth really is out there; it just goes unseen. There is Mark Dark, for example, too paranoid - not without justification, since the likes of Bob and Anne-Marie do try at various points to feed him false leads - and puffed up with self-importance to believe the data in front of him, even after running it through various checks:
"Good," said Mark. "Very good. Too fucking good to be true."
It was a classic double-bubble set-up: the intention, Mark did not doubt, was to lure him into publicising the leak, which would then be discredited at exactly the right moment to make him look very foolish indeed.
There was a thrill in it, all the same. To be targeted for such a perfect piece of disinformation, from so deep inside the security state, was just way cool.
"Awesome," Mark said. "Fucking A."
Likewise, it is misconstrued information, and the flags raised by too many coincidences - together of course with panicked pressure to produce results that stop the attacks on the UK - which sends Maxine Smith and her counterparts haring after the Travis family. Even Bob and Anne-Marie are working under an illusion, blissfully ignorant of the fact that one or more of their fake stories might - contrary to their and their bosses' beliefs - be the truth.
Because the real truth is that the book's tagline - The War on Terror is Over ... Terror Won - is both a smart joke and the guiding spirit of the story. Everyone we see, from government ministers and secret agents to basement bloggers and students on the run, is operating through a screen of constant, reflexive fear: of terrorists, of their neighbours who they've been taught might be terrorists, of their own government and military. Roisin, listening to her fellow bus passengers muttering their suspicions of Muslims, both derides their close-mindedness and feels sympathy with it:
Another part [of her] did feel under attack and did feel like hitting back and didn't much care if it hit the right target, because whoever it hit had it coming for something.
These embattled people have become so used to living with, and reacting to, their fear, that they cannot see how it shapes them and filters all their perceptions. Caught up in the fantasy their fears (and their own obfuscations) have created, they all miss what is really going on - even when the evidence for it is right in front of them. The same, of course, goes for the reader, and we have access to even more information than they do...
MacLeod is excellent at conjuring this atmosphere of all-pervading suspicion, and is clearly interested in examining how it affects people's interactions; in light of this, it is odd that there is no Muslim viewpoint character to give us the view from within. The hostile Othering of Muslims - the kneejerk fear directed at neighbours, shopkeepers, fellow commuters - is decried, but MacLeod only replaces it with an ostensibly positive Othering. James (who is heroically more tolerant and clear-sighted than his countrymen, naturally) rescues a Muslim family from their firebombed shop and the angry mob baying for their blood, but this only substitutes the dodgy fifth-columnist image with pitiable victims, rather than real people. In some ways this is a reflection of the treatment of character more generally; none of the major characters really stand out as vital, well-rounded creations. Rather, they operate more as vehicles by which the story-world's paranoid injustice may be felt by the reader; their lack of individuality and distinctiveness arguably means that we put ourselves in their position, rather than feeling for them as people afflicted.
It would be impossible to discuss The Execution Channel properly without considering its ending. In brief, non-spoilery terms: the story builds to a twist conclusion that is both astonishingly left-field and - in a love-it-or-hate-it way - utterly perfect. And which, when you think back, turns out to have been signalled at every turn, right from the beginning. More detail below, so skip the rest if you intend to read the book.
Here we reach the second instance of serendipity that I mentioned above. It was pure coincidence, but amusingly lucky, that I happened to have read James Blish's Cities in Flight just before starting The Execution Channel. So, when the hints - or, I should say, the narrative equivalent of great big neon signs - were being dropped about secret spindizzy research projects in China, I took notice. But I promptly, repeatedly dismissed these mentions as a genre in-joke, just a wilder conspiracy put about by the disinformationists. This despite the fact that the disinformationists themselves are not sure where the story comes from:
"There are rumours about secret work on the Heim drive, HTS, the 'spindizzy' as some call it - from a science fiction story - all over the net."
"On the usual dubious sites?"
"The usual suspects, yes. Which is why I think these stories too are disinfo, and we would not be cutting too close to the truth if we threw this in. [...] And, as I said, I had the one about an experimental reactor recovered on a cross-border raid into China! If any of these were too close to the truth I doubt that we would be told to spin them."
The text is peppered with such 'hints'; the truth is right there in the open, if only anyone cared to see it. In a passage from early on that I quoted near the beginning of the post, Roisin compares herself ruefully to a UFO-hunter, which is exactly what she is since the device she sees is part of a spindizzy; Mark Dark ponders but laughs off word of mysterious flying objects near China; there are reports of Chinese and Korean cities building domes to cover them; at one stage, Anne-Marie even gets Cities in Flight down from her shelf and talks about how she wishes the crazy rumours really were true. It could not be more obvious. But they, and we, are so attuned to the paranoia and the spy thriller pyrotechnics - so sunk in the belief that this is the type of story where there are two, clearly identifiable sides, where the bad guys are the ones out to get our heroes, and that our heroes have agency - that we don't know how to understand the information presented to us.
Mark Dark's first thought as the news broke was that he was very glad he was already in a basement. [...] what he was seeing just took the whole nuclear war survival handbook and tore it up and threw it away. It was like seeing the aftermath of an alien attack.
Maybe it was an alien attack. There was nothing left of these cities but smoking holes in the ground. The jingo cliche had been made literal, right there on CNN and al-Jazeera, right before his eyes. The first satellite pictures appeared, live: Pyongyang looked as if someone had removed it from the map with a hole-punch.
"We are deep in WTF territory," Mark mused.
Even once it has happened, and the cities have taken off, the initial assumption is that this the action is still on earth, and the main actors are still the western powers. Mark Dark quickly convinces himself that it must be a pre-emptive strike by the US, using a "hitherto unknown weapon of tremendous power", when in fact the Americans are not even scrambling to keep up, but instead busy hosting a military coup and going all isolationist again. Meanwhile, it becomes apparent not a single act of 'terrorism' in the book has been carried out by a non-state actor, and certainly not by those people the secret agents and the government are looking out for and expecting; much of the disaster and damage that has happened during the story was the result of misconceptions and assumptions on the part of those supposedly protecting the victims.
In a direct reversal of Blish's novels, the spindizzies belong to the communist and former-communist states. The ones deserting the earth and seeking the stars (and, presumably, taking human rights abuses to space...) are China and North Korea and Russia, while the great adventurous westerners of Blish's conception are left grubbing in the dirt, wondering what just happened, belatedly realising that the story is going on without them - that, indeed, the story was never really about them in the first place. MacLeod also adopts Blish's vision of the future, in which the pressures of two nebulous ideological systems facing off have warped both the ideologies, and their societies, beyond recognition. In addition, the Execution Channel itself, we discover, was a Chinese device; another distraction for characters and readers alike, another glimpse of a conflict that is going on all over the world, another sly hint nod towards the real power in the tale.
Above and beyond all the thematic and structural cleverness of it - and it really is so neatly, expertly done - though, there is much to be said for the sheer fun of having the rug pulled out from under you by (huzzah!) some more flying cities. Your experience may differ; but I found myself laughing aloud, delighted at the exhilarating audacity of it all.
"Haven't you seen the news?" She pointed to the nearest screen. "I had five minutes with nothing but the news to take my mind off the pain."
The screen was filled with a sharp, enlarged picture, clearly taken from space, of the waxing crescent Moon. Dozens of lights pricked the dark side. Roisin spoke her own voice-over.
"The cities weren't destroyed, Dad," she said. "They went to the fucking Moon."