Tuesday 4 September 2007

Ken MacLeod: The Execution Channel (2007)

Published: Orbit, 2007

Sometimes the line between science fiction and contemporary thriller is a thin one. The Execution Channel is set very slightly in the future, as many thrillers are, but the science fiction elements are minimal and (to my mind) detract from what could have been a fine thriller. The cover strapline tells us that in the book "the war on terror is over ... and terror won"; I don't think this is quite an accurate summary of the novel's contents. In fact, The Execution Channel depicts a Britain weary of the never-ending war on terror (a phrase I always want to put in quotation marks), not trusting its politicians, under heavy surveillance, with curtailed civil liberties and with a military basically taken over by the US; some cynics might say that it is almost like Britain today. The pirate satellite channel known as the Execution Channel is different, if only an extrapolation of some of the more extreme material broadcast by some channels: it shows footage of executions from round the world, and is widely considered to be run by the American intelligence services to bolster support for the war on terror.

It is against this background that the story is set, starting with an atomic explosion at RAF Leuchars in Scotland, which has become a USAF base. As other attacks follow, the combination of cover ups, leaks, deliberately planted and spontaneously generated Internet rumours prove a major part of the novel, which is the first thriller I have read to look at the relationship between blogging and military intelligence, which will obviously increase in the future, building on the importance blogs and social software generally already have in the political arena. The thriller parts of The Execution Channel work well, except for one thing: they don't really lead anywhere. This is in part due to the nature of the war on terror: it has the potential to be a never-ending conflict, rather like the virtual conflict between spam filters and spammers. Can there be an ending, unless it is that "terror won" because the US public got tired of the war?

This is presumably the reason for the science fiction in the story (though of course Ken MacLeod is best known as a science fiction genre writer, so these elements may have come first). Some of it is fairly trivial, such as the throwaway comments that indicate that in the world of the Execution Channel Gore rather than Bush won the 2000 presidential election; 9/11 was hugely different, but the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan still happened. This is not an important part of the plot, but is an interestingly argued little counterfactual.

The denoument of the whole novel also depends on an idea from the SF genre, one which will be fairly familiar to fans. Without revealing it, it is possible to say that, as the final act, it doesn't really work as an explanation for what has gone before. It raises more questions than it answers; it isn't really properly prepared, so appears to be inadequate as an explanation of what happened at Leuchars and insufficiently relevant to the events in the rest of the novel. Apart from the last two chapters, The Execution Channel is pretty good; but it is surely not possible to read it without being disappointed by the ending.