Review: The Execution Channel, by Ken MacLeod


Orbit, ISBN 978-18414-93497

(Review first published on the ASIM website, March 2008)


Ken MacLeod is a Scottish SF writer whose work is apparently characterised by an overtly political focus. I say ‘apparently’ because this is the only novel of his that I’ve read to date. The content of The Execution Channel is certainly political (on one level), but it also seems to be something of a departure for him: this is near-future SF, whereas most of his recent works have been classifiable as space opera.

In The Execution Channel, James Travis, a British survivalist IT wizard and traitor, decides it’s time to go to ground when his daughter Roisin calls him from a peace camp outside an American-commandeered military airbase in Scotland. Roisin in turn has been tipped off by her brother Alec, a soldier on deployment in Kazhakstan, who warns her that something big is about to go down at the airbase. Roisin and her colleagues break camp and are several kilometres down the road when a blinding flash and a burgeoning mushroom cloud vindicate their decision to retreat. However, the Travis family’s actions in response to the airbase’s destruction have not escaped the attention of the authorities, who want to know just how deeply implicated they are in this event and in the subsequent developments. Britain is under attack; has James succeeded in starting world war three?

The characterisation of this book is excellent, with Travis and his daughter cast as the main (and most detailed) viewpoint characters augmented by a half-dozen or so minor players. All are presented as eminently believable, well-rounded, and internally consistent individuals, for whom the motivation follows in a plausible fashion. The storyline quickly establishes points of tension between these characters, and MacLeod builds and sustains the suspense with deceptive ease. The reader is left not only with a strong sense of the main characters, but of the world they inhabit, very subtly different from that of today’s society.

I find it difficult to comment on the plot without running the risk of propagating spoilers, but I will say that the book’s packaging is somewhat misleading: MacLeod’s story does not inhabit the post-apocalyptic landscape hinted at by the front cover illustration and its blurb “The war on terror is over … Terror won.” The Execution Channel is, in essence, an SF espionage novel; but events do not devolve in the direction the reader is likely to expect. The book’s climactic events come almost literally out of left field, though there is some foreshadowing of them. I’m not completely convinced that the book’s ending is the best use to which the preceding chapters might ultimately have been put, although it is a memorable conclusion, and fitting in its way. And I’m prepared to give MacLeod the benefit of the doubt on plotting, because his storytelling is so immersive and sustaining. This is a book which I approached with some trepidation –- the cover illustration and title are a rather daunting combination –- but I found it a joy to read. If this isn’t the best British SF / espionage novel of the past year –- and that’s not such a narrow field as you might initially expect –- then I would say it has to be close to it.



(Review by Simon Petrie, 2009)


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