Top positive review
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Ascending and Descending
on 16 April 2014
I was looking for ward to this book, although with slight concern – Ken MacLeod’s last book, Intrusion, was so good that it was hard to see how he could match it.
“Descent” has at its centre Ryan Sinclair, who has a strange encounter as a boy and is never the same again. Or, who didn’t have a strange encounter, and was never the same again. Because there is room for doubt, and out of the doubt grows the change in Ryan. The book spins layer upon layer of delicious, nested, inside-out alternate theories, each of which relies on the previous one as a cover.
Besides the central motif (what did Ryan and his friend see on that hill?) the device is echoed in subplots (or are they part of the main mystery? It’s never clear). Revolutionary agitators joining the business world and ending up fronting for a right wing security apparatus... or are they? Genetic divisions in the human race going back to the Ice Age which may also conceal stranger truths (but the evidence rests on an ancient book which may or may not be genuine). It all nests and intertwines until you don't know what to trust.
And besides that, there’s Ryan’s stormy personal life and his growing up, his finding a place in the world. The story is driven as much by that as by what happened (or didn’t happen) at the start, and he ends up a desperate figure, using the new 21st century surveillance, available to all, to spy on his ex-girlfriend. He is at rock bottom, and needs to find his way to the truth - or to some truth - to climb up again - descending and then ascending.
MacLeod’s portrayal of a credible, near-future world is one of this book’s great strengths – his development of this proceeds from book to book. It isn't that that the books are set in the same future, they’re not, but between his last handful of stories, they seem to span (in the mathematical sense) a likely collection of possible timelines - characterised by environmental stress (but not collapse), economic slump, technical possibilities of varying sorts (in Intrusion, synthetic biology was to the fore; here it's materials science, space wizardry and real time surveillance), war (but not annihilating war) and, most of all, by the politics and religion (which is treated seriously and organic to the plot, not just sprinkled on afterwards as garnish).
MacLeod also has a real feeling for language, pace and tone - showing us, for example, in a passing reference to "the fallout count" in the weather forecast that the "war" mentioned here and there was a pretty major one, but not making the book a post apocalyptic nightmare. Or using a mention of how quaint a Kindle seems to show we're a few decades in the future. Or the family's treat of meat on a Sunday - which they can barely afford - conveying the depth of a recession. All things which a lesser author might labour and spend pages explaining.
My overall verdict would be that this is easily as good as Intrusion, although possibly Intrusion is more to my liking – its concept (examining and echoing 1984, though with the twist that the surveillance state is not imposed but bought into, and anxious to maintain the proprieties) seemed more meaty and rooted than the conspiracy and layers of Descent.
But it’s still an excellent read, a deep and absorbing book, a clever book in the best possible sense. It deliver a real feeling of wonder and covers some devilishly complicated issues, without ever losing contact with gritty reality. I recommend it wholeheartedly.