The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod

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The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A near-future catastrophe novel that is tense, well-drawn and sneakily, sneakily clever. The muted SF elements and subtle opinionating give the book a number of levels and made a patsy of this reader right up to the very last pages. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: March 2008
Publisher: Orbit
ISBN: 978-1841493497

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In a post flu pandemic Britain not so far into the future, a nuclear explosion rocks the US base at RAF Leuchars. Several thousand people die. The War on Terror is being lost, perhaps has already been lost. Russia and China are gradually reverting back to old-style Communism, Britain is a seething mass of racial tension, and a goodly proportion of Americans are subsisting in FEMA camps, refugees from global warming and debt. India leads the profitable race in designing technological consumer goods, China does the skilled manufacturing, leaving the newly-impoverished American workers the crumbs of slave-labour assembly work. Conspiracy theorists and state disinformation networks have become indistinguishable from one another and someone, somewhere has set up the Execution Channel, which shows loop after loop of the murder, execution and torture, nobody knows how.

The Leuchars explosion sends international espionage into overdrive. As the pressure builds and the possibility of all-out war edges ever closer, we follow James Travis, an IT engineer turned French agent, his daughter Roisin, a peace campaigner who witnessed the explosion, Mark Dark, an American conspiracy theorist and blogger, a group of disinformation operatives and a pair of particularly unpleasant security operatives as they try to find out exactly what is going on.

That Mr MacLeod's a clever one. The Execution Channel crept up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder, then bit me on the bum when I looked around more times than I care to admit. Just as I was cosying in to a near-future espionage thriller, one of the characters would have a minor internal epiphany - often little to do with the action - that stopped me dead in my tracks. Or a clever little piece of backstory - this isn't quite Britain in the near future, it's Britain in an alternative near future - would be thrown in very casually and trip me up in several assumptions that had a lot more to do with ideology than plot. It's almost as though MacLeod had gone to a fancy dress party disguised as Tom Clancy but made sure to leave his fingerprints on every glass. It would have to be quite a scary fancy dress party though, because The Execution Channel frightened the bejaysus out of me.

The SF elements in The Execution Channel are subtle and muted, but undeniably there. The feel of the book, however, is that of a tense spy thriller. Cleverly too, although violence is all around, we don't meet much of it head-on. It's all in the background, adding to a feeling of threat and menace in a world that has become so immersed in power games and double bluffs it lacks even the semblance of a moral framework on which to stand.

The Execution Channel was easy to read and difficult to think about. And it pressed every single one of my buttons (well, except for that half a page with the sex in it. Note to author: don't say "cock". It reminds me of the Readers Wives pages in Those Magazines all the boys bought before the good old www made all their dreams come true). I absolutely loved it. Here's hoping it gives Ken MacLeod an audience even wider than his considerable cadre of already appreciative SF fans. Stonking stuff.

My thanks to the nice people at Orbit for sending the book.

A wildly different but equally wonderful book speculating on future catastrophe is Jim Crace's The Pesthouse. You might also appreciate Blackout by Marc Elsberg and Marshall Yarbrough (translator). Intrusion is another of MacLeod's stand-alone novels.

Booklists.jpg The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod is in the Bookbag's Science Fiction Picks.

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