19 December 2007

Disappointing conclusion to a flawed trilogy

Engine City (The Engines of Light, Book 3)
Ken MacLeod
Tor Books, 2003

Reading the preface to this, the third volume in The Engines of Light trilogy, buoyed me after I completed the lackluster second volume, Dark Light. This novel seemed like the redemption of the trilogy (in the same fashion as Star Wars III). Alas, my optimistic assessment of the novel began to unravel as I was a quarter of the way in.

The "octopod" aliens whose future invasion was central to developments in Dark Light have arrived. These octopods, called Multis, Multipliers, or Spiders, are fractal in nature; a roughly human-sized representative of the species comprises smaller, self-similar individuals. These smaller Spiders can break off and grow into adults themselves or even be introduced into the system of a human in order to work nanoscale improvements (such as instant healing and immortality).

The reception that awaits the Multis is mixed, as should be expected by anyone who read Dark Light. Matt Cairns and his people adapt to the Multis and vice-versa, while the people of Nova Babylonia (who have undergone a revolution and fragmented into separate nation-states) responded to the alien arrival with nuclear weapons in space. The aliens make it through the defenses anyway, with the help of the Bright Star Cultures (the descendants of Cairns and other cosmonauts), the krakens and saurs panic and disappear, someone nukes New Babylon (Volkov? The gods?), and the ultimate crime, theicide, is committed.

If that all sounds confusing, that is because this novel, and the trilogy as a whole, WAS confusing. Reading it was like watching a firework launching into a beautiful trajectory only to come apart into thousands of different shards, and thinking to oneself, "I have to pick up those pieces."

In truth, the novel was fun to read (more fun than Dark Light) but the entire arc of the story, such as it was, became far too convoluted to resolve adequately. The ending was less a disappointment and more a head-scratcher; I did not understand what MacLeod had been trying to say with the trilogy.

That said, I must give kudos to MacLeod for creating in the Multis some of the more, well, alien aliens that I have encountered in SF. Perhaps MacLeod could do something in future works to explore the culture and history of the Multis. That would be fascinating.

(This review was originally written on July 17, 2006.)

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