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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.
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I find Ken Macleod to be something of an inconsistent writer. When I first read the Fall Revolution novels they blew me away, with their mixture of hard science fiction and a very Scottish combination of politics and wry cynical humour. The Engines of Light series, on the other hand, did nothing for me, I just found it a bit dull. The Night Sessions I found to be a curate's egg in the true meaning of the phrase, basically bad, but with some good bits.

The good news is that descent is definitely at the Fall Revolution end of the range. It is set in Scotland (where else) in the very near future, and tells the story of a young man, Ryan, between his late teenage, and becoming a father in his late twenties.

Bunking off from exam revision, Ryan, and friend Callum walk up a nearby hill where they have a close encounter with a mysterious flying object which leaves them unconscious for several hours. This is the cue for Macleod and the reader to have tremendous fun as conspiracy theories, apparent alien abductions , and X-files plot lines twist around each other in what is basically a political and economic thriller. Add in neanderthal bloodlines, the ongoing evolution if the human race, and mysterious bibles which seem to describe extraterrestrial life and you get some idea of the intricacy of the plot.

Of course his sadly departed fellow scot is a clear reference point, but while this is a science fiction novel, it is probably closer to the works of Iain Banks, without the "M", being as it is a very male coming of age story. Indeed, Macleod could be accused of lifting the Prentice/Ash love story from the Crow Road. That isn't a problem as Banks himself stole it from David Copperfield.

Overall, this is just great fun. It is one of those novels where it is easy to believe one can sense the novelist enjoying himself, and that sense of enjoyment was certainly passed on to this reader.
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on 5 May 2014
Ken MacLeod has delivered another interesting near-future adventure that touches on political and ethical issues of today in a “fictional” world. Issues included relate to the surveillance environment made possible by technology, the role of journalism, and the complexities of personal relationships. As always, Ken’s fictional world is very credible and his characters’ actions plausible.
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on 5 August 2014
THE referendum’s long past and Scottish Sci-Fi superstar Ken McLeod’s country is free at last in this latest disturbing but fun number.

After a dream start we’re soon into UFO country as a couple of lads have a close encounter. One of them, Ryan Sinclair, is well mixed-up in a world that seems to be well mixed-up as it is… society’s going to pot and the State’s playing an ever more intrusive role, or so Ryan would have us believe. For sure, something’s going on that the clever but not quite all there Ryan can only give us glimpses of, and his obsessions with conspiracies: Are they all in his mind or are they true?

His world is certainly an uncomfortable one, what with ‘Big Brother’ spying on him almost as much as commercial interests. There are big issues at work in Descent, ones that point to a bleak future, but McLeod is showing them to us through Ryan’s nerdy eyes. The result is pure dystopian fun. Is that possible?
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on 22 June 2015
This was the first novel I'd read by this author and I found it occasionally an oddly frustrating experience. Important political, scientific and economic Ideas and scenarios are picked up and dropped again without sufficient development, then returned to again later in the narrative. Characters are not particularly well fleshed out, although the storyline rattles along a decent pace. As an imagining of a near future world order, MacLeod has some interesting and perceptive insights into the way things might develop from where we are now. Ryan's best friend Calum has an accent/dialect that is not from Greenock - at least the way that Macleod has written it - people in the west of Scotland just don't say "Ye ken". The novel is teasingly multi layered without offering a particularly satisfying conclusion, other than to have Ryan tamely settle down after redeeming himself. Three and a half stars.
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on 7 May 2015
Strong characterisation and a coy investigation / satire of the idea of conspiracy theorizing are the books main strengths. The strong characterisation is a big attraction because so much scifi doesn't have it. The main character is not one of the world's most appealing but this makes him all the more compelling. The book maintains a mystery until almost the conclusion of what really is going on here, but again I think this kept you turning the pages. I think some plot clarity got lost in the final third. Overall I enjoy the themes of speciation and I think MacLeod is one of the smartest and least generic of current SF writers.
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on 18 March 2014
There is no Conspiracy. But there are plenty of conspiracies. Starting out almost like Famous Five meets E.T. by way of The X-Files and early Star Trek, Ryan Sinclair ('Sinky') and his mainly best pal Calum ('Duke') have a strange (but classic) UFO type experience, up on the hills above Greenock.

The ramifications of this play out over the following years as they grow up, go to university, meet Sophie and Gabrielle, get jobs and live lives. All set against a backdrop of a society in seemingly mild but chronic disarray, of the 'Big Deal' (international nationalisation of all banks), low-tech revolutionaries in running shoes and top-secret avionics companies. Their lives become entwined and complicated by visits from occasional Men in Black, secret evidence of 'genetic speciation' and references to Neanderthalers, all mixed in with a bit of marital intrigue.

Set slightly in the future; as the time goes by the growing ubiquity of drones (both state and commercial), smart phones and tablets plus the economic and political upheavals, the world portrayed becomes, in a realistically messy sort of way, a hotchpotch of state and commercial surveillance, always 'connected', always watching, but always watched too. Typically, in such a transparent world, there is the feeling that perhaps everything is not as visible and open as it outwardly appears to be.

It starts with a dream and ends with one too. Along the way, themes that have already come up in Ken MacLeod's books make re-appearances. The idea that we effectively have a kind of socialism, all we have to do is recognise the fact (which he wrote about in 'Intrusion') are here paralleled by a bunch of revolutionaries whose final message is that they have given up and joined the bourgeoisie; that power has simply been removed from the banks and, in their place, we are ruled by a small number of industrial oligarchs; that there are conspiracies within the conspiracies, that there are, perhaps, meta-conspiracies, like the meta-materials that Sophie fashions into 'lamp shade dresses', as Ryan and Calum disparagingly call them.

It ends, as I said, in a dream, but one already perhaps familiar if you have read 'The Execution Channel'. It's a deceptively easy read, pootling along quite nicely in it's various sections. At the end I was left thinking 'yes, nice book' but it's later, alone at night, that it creeps up behind you, keeps you thinking. It's almost as if, by returning to the themes MacLeod has explored before that he is suggesting 'hey, there really is something going on here!' but he's doing it in a novel about conspiracies, so the book itself becomes a part of a conspiracy. A fiction used to tell a truth (or truths) too unpalatable, too outré (not to mention sectionable) to be presented as 'fact', as reportage. Am I reading too much into this...?
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on 21 January 2016
Wonderfully good stuff as always from Ken MacLeod. Sound plot, characters you care about, quotidian Caledonian setting with the occasional peep into gigantic extraterrestrial and prehistoric vistas. He is one of the handful of science fiction writers I have learned to value even more highly since Iain M Bank's untimely death.
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on 7 December 2015
I really liked the glimpses this gave of next years tech. I like the dystopian present leading into a better future. A satisfying plot, slowly told, interspersed with interesting extrapolations on current trends. unfortunately I think it will seem dated quite rapidly as technology is moving faster than imagined in the novel.
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on 23 September 2015
I loved this novel! It is like an X-Files episode set in Scotland.

The near future MacLeod portrays is very believable, frighteningly so, and the lead character is a haunted, endearing, conflicted creation. Had to read it in one breathless go. Highly recommended
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