Wednesday, 14 February 2001

Ken MacLeod: The Cassini Division (1998)

Edition: Orbit, 1999
Review number: 753

The follow up to The Stone Canal is very like one of Iain Banks' Culture novels, though it also contains many references to other science fiction writers. It has a similar wry humour, and even goes to the extent of copying the wonderful ship names Banks uses.

The basis of the plot is again the division of humanity into those stored on computer (the "Fast Folk") and those who remain flesh and blood. Most of those who have become Fast Folk have gone mad, and because of their immensely faster speed of thought, have become a grave danger to those who have continued to live in the normal way. The Fast Folk have colonised Jupiter, and the constant stream of computer viruses which they produce have led to the virtual abandonment of electronic computing, and a deadly fear that one day they will develop a new virus which will be able to take over the brain via the optic nerve. The perimeter of Jupiter is guarded by the commando force named the Cassini Division, and one of their commanders, Ellen May Ngwethu, is the novel's central character.

Ngwethu is really the major force in the novel from a literary point of view. She narrates as well as dominating the plot, and is really the only fully drawn character. I didn't find her totally believable, but I loved her smart space suit, which can transform itself into whatever clothing is useful or appropriate.

In the end, I felt that The Cassini Division was somewhat disappointing. Like The Stone Canal, its surface brilliance isn't a reflection of anything deeper to say. MacLeod seems to be a sort of lightweight Iain Banks, though several of Banks' more recent novels also seem less profound and complex than his writing in the eighties.

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