by Ken MacLeod



336pp/$7.99/May 2001

Cosmonaut Keep
Cover by Stephan Martiniere

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Cosmonaut Keep is the opening novel in Ken MacLeod’s “Engines of Light” trilogy.  MacLeod tells two stories in the novel in alternating chapters.  One tale, about Gregor Cairns, is set in the far future on the distant planet Mingulay, while the other takes place in the relatively near future in a politically altered Scotland and seen through the eyes of Matt Cairns.

The Scottish portion of the novel is a political thriller, with Matt becoming involved with Jadey Ericson, an exchange student and possible spy.  Jadey enlists Matt in an attempt to decode a data-disk she has come into possession of, which reveals the plans for a flying saucer.  This information is made even more intriguing when MacLeod reveals that in his distant future humans have to rely on other, more experienced races, to travel between solar systems.  While the Scottish sequence may appeal to those who find MacLeod’s political suppositions interesting, the action tends to drag in order for MacLeod to include his political discourse.  The occasional inclusion of humor, unfortunately, does not alleviate this pacing problem, although neither does it harm it.

The Mingulay portions appear to be fairly typical science fiction set on a human colonized planet which is essentially cut off from the rest of the galaxy.  This section opens with the arrival of a rare trade ship, which is cause for a grand celebration, including Gregor Cairns, who would prefer to be allowed to continue his research into the Mingulayan sealife until he meets Lydia de Tenebre, the daughter of one of the visiting merchants.  Both MacLeod and Gregor continuously drop hints that the surface story is only a portion of what is happening, and as the story progresses, MacLeod gives the reader greater insight into the “Great Work” Gregor’s family is involved with.

Although MacLeod has built a potentially interesting culture, he dispenses information about it is a slow, calculated, but ultimately miserly manner that it deadens much of the reader’s interest.  Nevertheless, as Gregor learns more about the history of Mingulay and the Second Sphere, MacLeod shares that information with the reader.  While interesting, it also seems to be too little, too late.  In fact, since Cosmonaut Keep is only the first book in the trilogy, it is obvious that MacLeod is holding back even more information for eventual dissemination in future novels.

In addition to MacLeod’s setting, once he chooses to reveal it, Cosmonaut Keep has some strong descriptive passages.  His discussion of Elizabeth Harkness’s search for just the right dress, and the accompanying dissertation on fashion on out-of-the-way Mingulay, is reminiscent of similar passages in Lois McMaster Bujold’s novels.  Passages like this add to the overall flavor of the novel and create a well-rounded culture against which MacLeod can reveal his secrets.

Although Cosmonaut Keep contains some interesting ideas, they are all too often lost in the lackluster characterization or hidden behind the political discussions in the book.  For those who read Cosmonaut Keep, it is a book to be read slowly, to fully understand MacLeod's arguments.  The plot, which is equally slow moving, facilitates that comprehension.

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