Ken MacLeod's second book is a deeply compelling political SF novel that succeeds in every particular where his subsequent The Cassini Division can be said to falter. Though it suffers from unevenness in a number of areas, MacLeod's storytelling is generally tight. The book juggles two parallel narratives set centuries apart with impressive skill. It also has stronger characters, and MacLeod's politics (which you'll either admire or laugh at, depending upon your own) are often balanced by a refreshing sense of self-deprecating wit. This is a solid novel that establishes MacLeod's voice in SF with authority.
The story opens in the distant future on New Mars, a colony world at the other end of a wormhole created by the "fast folk," human intelligences living within very fast computers. Jonathan Wilde awakens within a new body, having been revived by a version of himself stored within a "human equivalent" robot. New Mars is a vast, sort-of anarchic technopolis; nearly 80% of the colony is given over to machines. As Wilde tries to discover why he's here, The Stone Canal settles into a pattern. MacLeod alternates chapters depicting the revived Wilde's experiences on New Mars with ones depicting his life on 20th century Earth, marked by a tempestuous friendship with a fellow named David Reid.
Reid is a socialist and Wilde an anarchist who meet and become friends in Glasgow in the politically volatile early 70's. Of the two, Wilde is the "space-nut," seeing in space exploration the solution to humanity's ills. For about the first third of the novel, the present-day chapters are far more involving than those set on New Mars, and this means the novel begins somewhat imbalanced dramatically. But MacLeod creates two fascinating foils in Reid and Wilde; their friendship is rocked by a lot of things, not the least of which is Reid's unsubtle attraction to Wilde's wife, Annette. Unlike Ellen May Ngewthu in Cassini, you find yourself kind of liking these two hard-drinking, righteous malcontents.
As in MacLeod's other stories, we get pallet-loads of heated political debate. The difference here (as opposed to Cassini, say, where the conversations hit a monotonous rhythm) is that MacLeod makes it all interesting, using dialogue in the service of character development and even spicing up the proceedings with a touch of wry humor. (Although later on in the book, it all became so complex, with so many different factions espousing so many different agendas, I started wishing I had a set of Cliff's Notes to keep track of everyone.) In one great scene, Reid, Wilde, and like-minded friends spend a Sunday afternoon grousing about the evils of capitalism over lunch in—wait for it—McDonald's. I have to admit that if I ever get to meet MacLeod, I'll have a hard time resisting getting his goat by asking him why he allows his unabashedly leftist novels to be published by a sinister capitalist corporate entity like Tor! Heh heh.
The scenes on New Mars are a stark contrast, but once you're settled into the story they become more and more compelling. MacLeod's decision to develop the modern-day storyline in parallel to the future one works like gangbusters. We become privy to the growth, and ultimate dissolution, of Reid's and Wilde's friendship at the same time secrets are revealing themselves on New Mars. It's a canny storytelling choice, though, as I said, at first it makes the book a bit uneven.
On New Mars, Reid is now the big boss. (Immortality of the transhumanist sort has been achieved in this future.) And in a perverse twist of hubris, he has constructed a "gynoid," a female sex-slave android based upon a clone of Annette, the wife of his friend-turned-enemy Wilde. But the gynoid, Dee Model, has become self-aware, escaped Reid, and has fallen in with a group of robot abolitionists who are bent on helping her achieve legal autonomy. MacLeod delves into the subject of machine intelligence with fervor, and his speculations upon intelligent machinery and its possible legal status puts the banality of such mainstream efforts like A.I. to shame. Another thing I noticed in the New Mars chapters is that, at times, MacLeod shifts into present tense voice to enhance action scenes. This is something I ordinarily can't stand, but MacLeod manages to make it smooth and seamless, and not at all distracting.
Though it's easy to see how this book put MacLeod on the map, it's still far from perfect. There are those uneven early chapters, and the book's ending is a little flat. Also, the whole theme of former best friends becoming arch enemies is pretty familiar, though not so much so that one can't still eke a good story out of it. MacLeod also gives short shrift to the development of his female characters in the present-day scenes; compared to the forceful Dee Model, who's seizing her newfound independence by the short and curlies, Annette makes little impression. Considering that the awkward triangle between Annette, Reid, and Wilde is a pivotal element in the novel, she surely should have gotten just as much play.
But The Stone Canal is among the more inventive and satisfying SF novels of the 90's, and a book that heralds an exciting career to come. If you've not added Ken MacLeod to your list of must-read authors, this energetic novel is a good starting point.