Engines of Light

Engines of Light
–          Cosmonaut Keep
–          Dark Light
–          Engine City

Ken MacLeod

Somewhere down the line, I wonder if a publisher will release an omnibus volume of these. None of the Engines of Light books is longer than 300 pages, so with a bit of editing, this could easily be condensed into one 600-700 page volume. I suppose if wouldn’t have made as much cash for Tor, but seems more sensible. This may seem like an odd place to start a review, but it is the logical terminus of my reaction to the series.

MacLeod is well known for taking a political approach to his books, and Engines doesn’t disappoint in that regard. Or perhaps it does, depending on one’s point of view. Within the greater universe, The Second Sphere, MacLeod introduces a future Earth and three extra-solar worlds. The former is more or less recognizable, the latter involving several different races and thousands of years of backstory. In each case save one, some sort of political conflict or revolution is at the heart of the story, even if this conflict is not the most important thing going on in the metastory. How the reader feels about this will likely be a direct reflection of how much said reader enjoys watching Marxists, anarchists, libertarians, etc. split hairs with each other.

Slogans and protests don’t, however, obscure MacLeod’s world building. The Second Sphere is a fascinating version of the Elder Races guiding/protecting/oppressing upstart Earthlings trope. The three worlds he creates, Mingalay, Croatan, and Nova Babylon have whole, functioning cultures, economies, and governments, with the relationships between races and factions logical and coherent. Metastory aside, these worlds are interesting places to spend a few hours, even if MacLeod keeps blowing them up with People’s Republics of Whatever.

But this is where my issues with the books start to creep in. MacLeod suffers a bit from George Lucas Syndrome, where a mind bending universe and grand, all-consuming conflict are subordinated to smaller, shallower narratives. Here is The Second Sphere, nearly omnipotent beings may or may not be plotting the destruction, or at least culling, of humanity, giant sentient squids are piloting FTL starships, fuzzy orange spider monkeys are bouncing happily through the galaxy, killer asteroids and/or interstellar warfare may or may not be imminent, and we spend most of our time reading about factional disputes in a couple of planetary governments. When I let myself flow with the stories, I was caught up in the action and enjoyed the twists and turns. But anytime I stepped back, I wanted MacLeod to zoom out a bit and show me the real story. Everything kind of comes to a head at the end of the trilogy. I’ll save spoilers for the comments, but I was left cold with the resolution of all big questions and the way MacLeod felt obligated to wrap everything up.

Combined with a first book that basically felt like he was setting the stage for the rest of the series without telling much of a compelling (or possibly relevant) story, I come back to my original reaction. Chop off half of the first book, lose a few pages of political wrangling throughout, and rethink the ending, and we have an engaging, longer, standalone novel. As it is, Engines of Light was enjoyable, but won’t rank in my Top Space Opera Ever list.

Rating: Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs put a good product on the field every year, have passionate supporters, and occasionally succeed. Usually though, they are overshadowed by other London clubs and fall down at key moments.

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One thought on “Engines of Light

  1. Pingback: Extra Credit, July 14 « Two Dudes in an Attic

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