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Monday, April 05, 2004  

Reading: McLeod's The Star Fraction disappoints

Why do I read writers who frustrate me? I find Ken McLeod's novels flawed in execution and reasoning. So, why did I pick up The Star Fraction? Well, Borders was closing earlier than I realized it did and I didn't want to leave empty-handed. There was no Maureen McHugh in the sci-fi Ms. I espy a known name. Grab book. Race to checkout counter. When I get home and sit down in the oak rocking chair with the novel, I realize I've bought a book by a writer who has frustrated me in the past.

What McLeod attempts to do in his novels -- blend political theory and science fiction -- sounds enterprising. But, in my opinion, his schemes often fail. The worst of his attempts I have read so far is The Star Fraction. It is the first in the four books that make up a series about the theories of futurist and philosopher Jonathan Wilde. The book revolves around three ideas. Oops! I mean characters. Actually, the characters are more ideas than people. Moh Kohn is a security mercenary who has inherited more than he knows from his brilliant software engineer father. He represents libertarianism with socialist inflections. Jordan Brown is a youth who will escape the Christian fundamentalist enclave he has grown up in to become a leader of a more capitalist form of libertarianism. A research scientist who will take her belief in an unstructured, 'barbarian' society into space, Janis Taine, finishes the triumvirate.

The plot is simple, despite misleading twists and turns. A computer directed shadow government has been waiting to overthrow the regime that rules Britian and much of Europe for decades. Under the Settlement, control is in the hands of the Hanoverians, who follow a capitalist model we would recognize, but allow enclaves to opt out -- as long they don't challenge the larger power. There is an impasse in regard to space exploration. Though there are asteroid mining operations, access to space is strictly limited. Furthermore, big guns guard the skies from space, ready to wipe out both any computer-generated viruses that might threaten Space Defense or solid weapons that appear to be a threat. The goal of the Black Planner, an artificial intelligence, is to break the power of the Hanoverians and their allies all over the world. It also wants to end the reign of Space Defense. Those objectives will be achieved by using Moh Kohn as an interface between machine intelligence and the minds of men.

Kohn is so lacking in believable personality that he might as well be a machine anyway. McLeod substitutes macho derring-do for character in a doomed effort to humanize Kohn, but it doesn't work. But, most of all, Kohn is a carrier for his pedestrian beliefs about libertarianism. In McLeod's imagined world, Kohn and other characters reveal their freedom by smoking, drinking and drugging continually. Indeed, if people actually behaved as he describes, they would be dead by 25 from lung cancer alone. Another oddity of McLeod's libertarian world is that no one ever complains about the excesses of the air polluting free people. I am embarrassed for McLeod. This is the kind of pose one expects to see in the papers of college freshmen who believe they are being oppressed by laws that require them to wear motorcyle helmets, not in the works of a significant writer. The female character is mainly and adjunct to Kohn. Janis Taine carries out his orders and services him sexually. Jordan Brown, who is supposedly only seventeen, may be the fastest learning character in sci-fi. He is pressed into service whenever the plot needs to pan away from Kohn. Except for one act he performs, Jordan is redundant.

McLeod describes his intentions for The Star Fraction in an introduction to the novel. As is my habit, I skipped the front matter until after I had read the narrative. I like to form my own opinion of what a book is about before being influenced by its author.

. . .One constraint on the possible arrangements of a future society was indicated by the Austrian economist Ludwig Von Mises. He argued that private property was essential to industrial civilization: "without property, no exchange; no exchange, no prices; no way of telling if any given project is worthwhile or a dead lost." Given that every attempt to abolish the market on a large scale has led to the collapse of industry, his Economic Calculation Argument seems vindicated. Unforunately, there is no reason why the Economic Calculation Argument and the Materialist Conception of History [Marxism] couldn't both be true. What if capitalism is unstable and socialism is impossible?

The Star Fraction is haunted by the uncomfortable question.

McLeod's attempt to write a novel of speculative fiction that encompases that connundrum is not convincing. The societies he presents are too obviously ideological constructs to contain real people. Predictably, his characters fail to behave as anything other than pieces on a chessboard.

Furthermore, McLeod's acceptance of paleo-conservative Von Mises' critique ignores the Keynesian theory of equilibrium prices, which may be the answer to how prices can be set fairly in a mixed economy.

Another of McLeod's books that disappoints me is The Sky Road. It is too weighed down by more philosophizing about political theory. The Stone Canal also suffers from too much of the long-winded egoist Jonathan Wilde, but manages to be a readable novel anyway. I've been told the fourth book in the series, The Cassini Division, the only one I have not read, redeems Ken McLeod's vision somewhat. So, I guess I will be going, reluctantly, back to the stream for another drink.

10:05 AM