Book Review: Newton's Wake: A Space Opera

I've read and enjoyed Ken MacLeod's early science fiction novels, but some­where along the way I lost track of his output. Perhaps because he's not as well known here in the US and his books tend to be less visible. So while this book has been out for some years now, I'm only just getting around to it.


I expect MacLeod's work to have a strong polit­ical element to it and that isn't really true for Newton's Wake. The various cultures in the book certainly have very distinct polit­ical systems but they are compar­a­tively shallow repre­sen­ta­tions and that element really takes a back seat to what is, as adver­tised, a space opera. That may well make this novel much more approach­able for many readers than other stuff by MacLeod.

There are certainly a lot of inter­esting things going on in this world. MacLeod posits a human centric universe after a hard rapture has happened. His thought process being that inevitably some humans would get left behind (for one reason or another) and what would they do exactly? Turns out they don't exactly like sentient AI's very much because sentient AI's don't consider them very impor­tant. All of which makes a lot of sense and sets up an inter­esting back­drop for the story to play out on.

The early, and I think most inter­esting part of the novel takes place on the world of Eury­dice which is a care­fully balanced society that contains the people who fled from Earth while the rapture was going on and who have been cut off from the rest of the galaxy since then. Other people left Earth later on though and there are several powerful factions out there. The discovery of Eury­dice essen­tially threatens the polit­ical stability between these groups.

Our focal char­acter is Lucinda Carlyle, a member of a partic­u­larly thug­gish clan who have gained control of a worm­hole system. I'll admit to a bias here in that it was fun to read a protag­o­nist who is not only Scot­tish but frequently uses Scots words. I'm not sure how well things like muckle or Glasgow Kiss trans­late to everyone else though.

As the situ­a­tion on Eury­dice starts to spin out of control, Lucinda travels further afield and we are intro­duced to the other polit­ical powers and find out more about the nature of this post-rapture universe. All of which was inter­esting, but less imme­di­ately so than the maneu­vering on Eury­dice itself.

And then in the final section… it sort of spins of in an unex­pected direc­tion and gives us… well… not really an ending at all. I mean. It ends. And tech­ni­cally most key things are addressed. But I was left wondering what the point had actu­ally been.

So there's a lot of great world-building that goes on. MacLeod looks at all sorts of effects that might result from surviving a hard rapture, and the ability to clone and replace bodies and minds. The char­ac­ters are engaging too. But the story it just seems to trail off. I found the satir­ical aspects fell flat for me too. There's a good number of them, but mostly they felt to broad or lacking subtlety

That said I enjoyed it quite a bit. I gener­ally find Macleods work a little frus­trating because he tends to be very ambi­tious in what he's trying to do and he doesn't hit 100% of the time, but they are rewarding reads nevertheless.

4 / 5 stars     

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