Saturday, 23 December 2000
Ken MacLeod: The Stone Canal (1996)
Review number: 700
The two interlocking narratives which make up The Stone Canal concern libertarian anarchist Jonathan Wilde. The earlier chronologically starts when he is a student at Glasgow University in the 1970s, and basically deals with his gradual development into a political guru as Western capitalism begins to fall apart in the twenty first century. The other narrative is set in the far future, when a clone of Jonathan Wilde is given his memories, copied from a computer copy of his brain. This provides one of the best first lines of any science fiction novel: "He woke, and remembered dying".
For most of the novel, the two stories of Jonathan Wilde are basically independent, and while this is the case they are both top class pieces of science fiction. The story of his early days is believable, with the trends producing the changes he witnesses in the way the world works easy to see. His character is very well done indeed. The far future story is atmospheric, the rather bewildered revived Jonathan being recognisably the same person rather more sketchily drawn (as characterisation makes way for background). He makes occasionally anachronistic jokes, meaningless to the people that he meets but drawing in the reader who shares his late twentieth century background.
The ending, where the two strands of Jonathan Wilde's life are drawn together, is the most disappointing part of The Stone Canal. It feels rather on the abrupt side and perhaps would have benefited from being extended. It answers the questions raised by the rest of the novel, but not really in an interesting way. It feels as though MacLeod has been attempting to convince the reader that he has something to say, but that when it comes down to it, he hasn't. Potentially interesting issues are raised - the nature of the relationship between a person and a machine-held copy of their mind, for example - without being explored.
The excellence of the main part of the novel encourages me to read more Ken MacLeod, and the disappointment of the ending is not enough to put me off doing so.