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The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod
(Legend, 322 pages, paperback. 1997.)

"This man's going to be a major writer," says Iain Banks on the cover of Ken MacLeod's The Stone Canal. I wouldn't like to argue with the man at all: on the strength of this book, I'd say MacLeod was well on the way to emulating his friend and mentor. Between The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal, there is a huge jump in MacLeod's ability to write SF. The earlier book was good, but had rough edges, a looseness of control that sometimes confused. You couldn't say that about The Stone Canal, which is beautifully handled, tightly controlled and superbly imagined.

The quickest way of getting a taste of what The Stone Canal is like is to imagine a collaboration between Iain Banks the mainstream writer and Iain M Banks the SF writer, each taking a strand in the book. One strand runs from the present day in the UK, the other beginning hundreds of years in the future on New Mars, a human colony half a galaxy away. Each strand revolves around two main characters, Jonathan Wilde and Dave Reid, friends and competitors, political radicals, and both in love with the same woman.

The strand that runs from the present day has Wilde and Reid ricocheting off each other as rivals, both for Annette, who becomes Wilde's wife, and politically, as Reid's agenda takes him rightward, while Wilde's takes him leftward into anarchist/libertarian streams of thought. Ironically, each triggers the other, Wilde inundating Reid with a wide variety of political propaganda from all over the world as revenge for propositioning Annette, while Reid sets Wilde up as a political agent with funding enabling his views to be widely propagated.

In the second strand, Wilde awakes on the banks of the stone canal, to be told by a robot named Jay-Dub that his body is a freshly grown clone with Wilde's mind downloaded into it. He soon discovers that the colony is run by Dave Reid -- and the last memory Wilde has of Reid is of him being there when Wilde was gunned down. He also discovers that Reid has a clone of his wife, though downloaded with a machine intelligence. An age old battle is rejoined, with the future of the colony at stake.

MacLeod has succeeded in making a big step up from The Star Fraction to The Stone Canal, which is a superb achievement for a second novel. It's fast, fascinating and fun, with an imaginative span that gives the reader's sense of wonder a full workout. A sequel, The Cassini Division, is also excerpted in the paperback, just to get anticipation running for Macleod's next step up the ladder. "Going to be a major writer"? Mr Banks underestimates MacLeod's trajectory -- he's practically there already!

Review by John D Owen.

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© John D Owen 7 March 1997