Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Ken McLeod nears shark, doesn't quite jump

Cory Doctorow, in a blurb for Ken McLeod's The Execution Channel, calls it a "blogothriller," which is appropriate in too many ways. Like a blog the book is all over the place, full of unnecessary information and in-jokes, and hard to follow. It really started to come together toward the end, but the ending was a bit of a stretch for me, in spite of his attempts to set it up.

If TEC has any predecessor in fiction, I would suggest it is Robert Anton Wilson's The Illuminatus! Trilogy. Like RAW, McLeod races through a whole menagerie of conspriracy theories, both "real" and made-up. Like Wilson, he only spends long enough on each to show that he is smart enough to know that each is balony, but that the truth is some deeper conspiracy that you've never heard of.

Part of the problem is that he's just trying to do too many things. For example, it's annoying to be 100 pages into a book and discover that it's an alternate-history novel. Sort of. We're well into the plot when the blogger Mark Dark explains what went wrong in the 2000 elections, or as he calls it the "November Coup". (McLeod cleverly underlines places where you know exactly where a link would go.) What happened was that the Workers World Party was not allowed to run, and...

If the WWP had run in Florida they'd have pulled hundreds of votes from Gore, just enough to swing it for Bush

This, by the way, is after people have talked about their experiences in the Iraq war, 9/11, and so on. Dark goes on to explain that if Bush had been elected, he'd read the Presidents' Daily Briefing "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside US," have used his spook and oil contacts to nab Bin Laden before AQ pulled off 9/11 (which in the book knocked down different skyscrapers in NY and Feneuil Hall in Boston), and never would have invaded Iraq. Later, we see an anti-war book by Bush on the bookstore shelves.

This is funny, of course. It's hard to explain now why so many Nader supporters like myself thought back in 2000 that Bush and Gore would be interchangeable. History has not been kind to this view. It takes real balls for McLeod to come forward and say the same thing after the last 5 years. Nevertheless, it's out of place in the book, especially since the alternate-history plays no future role in the book.

The best part of the book are the details of the day-to-day lives of the protagonists, James Travis and his daughter Roisin (pronounced Rosheen). As they travel the world trying to uncover a huge international conspiracy and escape various spies trying to capture and kill them, they are grounded by emotional vulnerability and the painful nuisances of daily life at airports, on buses and everywhere else. More spy novels should be like this.

The other main character, Libertarian-Conservative blogger Mark Dark, is equally believeable, holed up in his mother's house writing long posts that are underlined in just the right places to show that McLeod knows the blogosphere well.

Unfortunately, the actions of the characters never quite come together to resolve the time we spent with them. The conclusion, when it comes, feels like a bit of a deus ex machina, even though McLeod went out of his way to set it up. (Maybe he just wanted to avoid accidentally writing mundane science fiction, which the ending certainly excludes him from.) A lot of the the other threads of the plot are so vague that it's hard to know what really happened. As a result, he has to add in a final chapter in which he details what happened to each character later, like the ending of Fast Times at Ridgemont High or every other Hollywood movie in the early '80s.

It's a bit of a disappointment, of course, especially because I love his earlier work. But even though I don't recommend his blogothriller, I highly recommend his blog. And if you don't know his work, I recommend starting where I did, with Cosmonaut Keep.


Penelope said...

I remember thinking that about Bush and Gore: "Ones a little to the right (hence compasionate conservative-- that term still cracks me up) the other is a little to the left."

And then, in a split second, our world completely changed.

It would be interesting to see our current world under Al Gore. But hind sight is 20/20 and we'd be griping about him too most likely.

If you like such hypothetical historical issues read Plot Against America.

-- Karen

Jim Stewart said...

Karen: Yeah, I've been wanting to get around to that book. I have no problem with alternate-history in general. I just didn't like the way McLeod tossed it off, without it having any important part in the plot otherwise.