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The Cassini Division by Ken MacLeod
(Orbit, 240 pages, hardback. 7 May 1998.)

You could describe The Cassini Division as socialist military post-cyberpunk sf. Or you could simply describe it as a fine novel. I'll settle for the latter.

The Cassini Division shares the same future history as MacLeod's first two novels, The Star Fraction and cover scan The Stone Canal (the latter is reviewed elsewhere in infinity plus): a post-capitalist future where a self-centred socialism has been recognised as "the true knowledge" and one of the worst insults, "...spoken with a sneer and a pretend spit..." is banker.

Perhaps the politics of these novels explains why they haven't found a US publisher as yet. But anyone who judges a book like this in such terms is making a big mistake: MacLeod writes with a sophisticated knowingness of the processes of history (always written by the victors...) that denies any crude categorisation or generalisation. This is a working future entirely different from the stereotypical capitalist-imperialist trope of our genre, and it is all the stronger for that. If only more writers refused to swallow the materialist assumptions of Golden Age sf!

The Cassini Division of the novel's title is an elite military force, devoted to the protection of the anarcho-socialist Solar Union. Ellen May Ngwethu is a senior member of the Division (inasmuch as they have any kind of hierarchy) and the novel opens with a bit of intrigue where Ellen tracks down two mysterious people to a party on an Atlantic Island: an artificial woman and a man from the stars. Although these two characters crop up occasionally later in the novel, they turn out to be a bit of a red herring -- a nod to The Stone Canal, where they were more central.

After failing to recruit the two, Ellen sets off to find Isambard Kingdom Malley, the physicist who produced the final equations in the Theory of Everything. Malley has become what they call a "non-cooperator", living in a wonderfully run down enclave in London. Right now, Ellen badly needs Malley to become a cooperator...

In the meantime, the post-human Outwarders of Jupiter are showing an interest in their surroundings again.

The Outwarders' philosophy is that "If you want to live in space, you're better off as a machine than as a bag of sea water". They dismiss humans as "counter-evolutionaries" and would ultimately like to turn everything except the stars into smart-matter (ie into themselves), starting with small asteroids and moving up to "Jupiter-sized brains": "If it isn't running programs and it isn't fusing atoms, it's just bending space." This is a future where the aliens are us (or at least our descendants). And as you'll see from these quotes, The Cassini Division is a novel full of snappy one-liners, smart analogies, spot on labels -- MacLeod is a writer at home with language, a writer who enjoys his work.

As the Outwarders live at an accelerated pace -- with subjective centuries passing in a matter of hours -- they have evolved way ahead of humankind. Ellen is convinced that such highly evolved entities, with so alien an outlook, must pose a serious threat to the survival of her own kind. She's willing to do whatever it takes to stop them, even when all those around her want to give the Outwarders the benefit of the doubt.

The result is a deftly handled a philosophical thriller: a Good Read that, whilst clearly part of a larger story, is a successful novel in its own right.

There are some writers who are so dauntingly good that, when I read their work, I often end up wondering why on Earth I bother trying to write myself. Ken MacLeod isn't one of these writers. He's good in a subtly different way: not daunting, but inspirational and uplifting. His work is so good that I wish I could do similar. I suppose that could be taken to mean that he's not yet in the top rank, and I suppose that's probably true. But to get so close is no mean achievement.

As I have said, The Cassini Division is too sophisticated for crude generalisations. But I'll generalise, nonetheless: The Cassini Division is a fine novel. Now go and read it.

Review by Keith Brooke.

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© Keith Brooke 23 May 1998