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The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 2007

Weekend cover

Ken MacLeod won instant critical praise and readership with The Star Fraction and the remainder of The Fall Revolution series of space opera type novels. He followed those with the equally celebrated Engines Of Light trilogy. All these books were noteworthy in that they had overtly political overtones of a type not often seen in SF, which is to say they engaged with left leaning perspectives. Lately he has moved away from series to stand-alone novels exploring other tropes from the SF firmament, in Newton’s Wake and the excellent Learning The World – where MacLeod gave us a generation starship and first contact novel all in one.
The Execution Channel, which is not done many favours by the somewhat misleading though enticing strapline on the cover, is another change of tack, an intricately plotted, tightly written near future type thriller involving bloggers, conspiracy theorists, MI5, the CIA, the French secret service etc. in an alternative world where Gore won in 2000 but 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan still happened – and, in contrast to our world (so far,) so too has Iran. Unlike End Of The World Blues, here the SF elements of the story – there is mention of Planck anomalies and Heim Theory spaceships – are integral to the plot and denouement.
The air bases at Leuchars and Lossiemouth have been given over to US forces. A peace-type camp monitors events at Leuchars. After a camp member, Roisin Travis, receives a cryptic message from her brother, a British soldier in Afghanistan, and she witnesses the arrival of a strange object, the campers leave hurriedly and attempt to send out the pictures she has taken to newspapers and other interested parties worldwide. An unconventional explosion producing a mushroom cloud then destroys the base and they become subject to a manhunt by the security forces.
In the meantime she has warned her father, an IT expert whose company has done work for the government, and who is now travelling to meet her at a prearranged rendezvous. Both get caught up in a ramping up of the emergency – motorway flyovers brought down, Grangemouth Oil refinery blowing up, aircraft flying into terminal buildings, with Travis senior also helping to deflect backlash attacks on Muslims, scapegoats for these attacks, along his way. In the course of this one wonders how much spy fiction MacLeod has read, or spooks he has spoken to, as his descriptions of tradecraft read well.
The convolutions of the plot are admirably worked out, the characters engaging and the SF twist came as an agreeable (if partially breaking suspension of disbelief) surprise.

The Execution Channel in the book is the product of a kind of spy software in CCTV cameras feeding captured images of pain and death through secret conduits in widely disseminated relay satellites to the eponymous broadcasting outlet. The concept – while an intriguing comment on “reality” TV trends in our world – is neither overplayed nor gratuitous. At one point it serves a plot function.

There is an “Extras” section at the end of this paperback edition, missing from the hardback I note, which includes an interview with Ken Macleod – no problem with that – but also an entirely superfluous extract from a book by a different author entirely. (I know publishers want to promote their books but this is simply an annoying way to go about it.)
Ignore that though. This book is in my top three reads of this year.

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