infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror non-fiction: reviews, interviews and features
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z

Cosmonaut Keep - Engines of Light: book one
by Ken MacLeod

A double review:

Cosmonaut Keep by Ken MacLeod
(Orbit, £6.99, 385 pages, paperback; first published 2000, this edition 1 November 2001; ISBN 1-84149-067-9.)

Review #1

Cosmonaut Keep sees Ken MacLeod having a crack at writing a bona fide big space opera. Perhaps he and Peter F Hamilton got drunk at a Con somewhere, things got a cover scanbit heated and Pete called Ken out for a 'big space opera' duel: Alastair Reynolds would be egging them on the side, Iain Banks nodding with pride nearby, and the ghost of Isaac Asimov tutting somewhere above him at the lack of discipline these youngsters show...

Pow! MacLeod can't help showing his background with a very large castle on a far, far distant world in the first chapter - and a near-future Edinburgh in the second.

Crack! A huge alien spaceship arrives!

Oof! The Russians run Europe!

Thud! The huge alien spaceship run by giant super-intelligent squid carries almost-parasitic human mercantile families between otherwise isolated worlds!

All right, that's enough of that.

Cosmonaut Keep has two alternating narrative strands that it very soon becomes obvious will somehow, incredibly, join up. That one (as I mentioned) is set in a near-future neo-Soviet Edinburgh, and the other on an almost pastoral human colony sometime in the future makes this something of a feat.

MacLeod releases facts and background very begrudgingly throughout the book - no infodumping here - but it's worked out well enough to keep you turning pages without becoming too frustrated about just what exactly is going on. Just as you're about to metaphorically asphyxiate from lack of exposition he gives you another lungful to tide you over for another chapter.

Unfortunately the characters work less well, falling in and out of love as if they are 15-year-olds (they're not). Matt (the main character in Edinburgh)'s adaptation to some pretty damn stunning space travel seems far too smooth. This is a man who's never even been into orbit before, and he's unfeasibly calm and blasé about becoming, first an international fugitive, and then an astronaut (yes, and a cosmonaut) and finally… well, I won't spoil it for you.

With MacLeod's trademark political/philosophical sophistication watered down as it is here I felt I was being hurried through the book on a moving walkway when what I really wanted was to stop and check out some of the scenery. Cosmonaut Keep could and should be a lot thicker, particularly as the jumping-off point for a big space opera epic like this.

David Brin's excellent Uplift series sprang to mind in comparison to Engines of Light, but Brin's books are all behemoths by comparison and the number of books in that series was always, as I recall, set to top double figures. A little bit more space (say, another hundred pages) wouldn't have done Cosmonaut Keep any harm at all. Hopefully this is because MacLeod has a lot of stuff to get through and so is employing brevity in places where we might otherwise expect some depth simply in order to get to the important stuff.

At the end of the day, this is Ken MacLeod we're talking about here, and I'm quite prepared to indulge him with the benefit of the doubt in a way I wouldn't have done if this was a first-novel newcomer.

I enjoyed Cosmonaut Keep; it's broad in scope, brash and fun, but it didn't take long to read and it didn't stick in my mind in the way his earlier books have always managed to do before.

Review by Stuart Carter

Cosmonaut Keep by Ken MacLeod
(Tor, US$26, 300 pages [but see note], hardback, published May 2001, ISBN 0-765-30032-X. Paperback (US$8) published January 2002.)

Review #2

Rating: strong "A" - another fine thinking human's space opera. Nebula award in 2002?

Like most of MacLeod's books, Cosmonaut Keep is told in two alternating timelines. By far the most interesting story-strand is set on the planet cover scanMingulay, in a complex society of humans, saurs, krakens and other sentients. The worldbuilding and backstory unfold very, very nicely here, in ways that would be unfair to reveal - much of what's best in CK lies here, and I'll bet you'll have as much fun reading it as I did.

By contrast, the near-future alternate Earth, featuring a Red Europe and a reactionary America, gets off to a slow start, and is likely to irritate nonpolitical readers. But this stuff is at least intelligently done, skimmable, and - about 50 pages in - finally starts to rock. But I would have liked to have spent more time on Mindulay, the Second Sphere, saur society, kraken ways - and, I imagine, more of this will be Coming Soon.

I don't think I'm giving away too much by saying that Cosmonaut Keep is a variant of the old Elder Races Rule the Universe shtick - in this one, Fermi's Paradox is enforced by stern Galactic Gatekeepers, and woe to junior races who run afoul of the gods. They hate spam - and care about due process about as much as you do when you spray Raid on an anthill....

Ah, here's a quote I can't resist, from Thomas Wright, the discoverer of galaxies, written c.1750 (courtesy of Freeman Dyson):

"In this great celestial creation, the catastrophe of a world such as ours, or even the total dissolution of a system of worlds, may possibly be no more to the great Author of Nature than the most common accident of life with us. And in all probability such final and general doomsdays may be as frequent there as even Birthdays or Mortality with us upon the Earth. This idea has something so Cheerful in it that I own I can never look upon the stars without wondering that the whole world does not become astronomers..."

If this didn't influence MacLeod in writing Cosmonaut Keep - well, it should have!

Other readers see Poul Anderson influences in CK - what I saw were David Brin touches, and explicit references to Hans Moravec who, come to think of it, was a major inspiration for the AI Wars in MacLeod's first four novels. And there's a welcome scattering of short quotes from Golden Age classics - a nice touch for the well-read.

Cosmonaut Keep is the first of a new series, "Engines of Light". Book #1 comes to an adequate resolution, with plenty of hooks to prime you for the next installment, Dark Light - UK edition published in November 2001 (reviewed elsewhere in infinity plus). MacLeod's writing just keeps getting better, and I'll happily put up with his hothouse politics to get to the amazing inventions in his spectacular new universe-playground. Highly recommended.

And I should mention the wonderfully atmospheric cover art, by new-to-me artist Stephan Martiniere, of the Nova Babylonia trader starship landing at Kyohvic port, Mingulay. Bravo!

Note: 300 pages if you start counting at the frontispiece, a needless bit of mendacity by Tor. Text begins on p.15. [...back to start of this review]

Other reviews:

Review by Peter D Tillman; More of Peter D Tillman's reviews can be found at: SF Site and Google "Peter D. Tillman" +review for many more!

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:

support this site - buy books through these links:
A+ Books: an insider's view of sf, fantasy and horror (US) | Internet Bookshop (UK)

top of page
[ home page | fiction | non-fiction & reviews archive | other stuff | A to Z ]
[ infinity plus bookshop | search infinity plus ]

© Stuart Carter and Peter D Tillman 5 January 2002