Ken MacLeod, The Execution Channel, Orbit, 2007.
Following the example of a philosophy book I translated last year, I will examine this novel on two levels: that of epistemology, discussing the nature of knowledge and information, and that of ontology, concerning the nature of reality. These are the two obvious themes of the book, and they are linked by the idea of secrecy and its costs.
On the ontological level, the setting is a near future of a slightly alternative reality. The point of divergence from our own world is the 2000 US presidential elections. In this version, Gore won the elections and events proceeded slightly differently, ending up with a more extensive Allied war in the Middle East. The description of this history makes the reader wonder how much of a difference there could have been, and whether things would have turned out as described. It feels close enough to our reality for readers to identify with events.
The main characters are James Travis, a programmer for an English infrastructure company, who is also a French spy; and his daughter, Roisin Travis, a peace activist, who has seen something strange at a US Air Force base in Scotland. Around them, we observe various characters who know things about these two, or are spreading information that has an impact on their actions. These minor characters include an American conspiracy theory blogger called Mark Dark; a CIA agent and an MI5 agent working together to capture James and Roisin; and a group of disinformation creators working on the Internet to conceal the truth and create confusion.
On the epistemological level, at every point in the story, the reader has to remember what each character knows, and what the source of this information was, since it may well be disinformation.
An explosion at the Scottish air base triggers a series of terrorist attacks around Britain. Our main characters flee through the chaos, while everyone tries to work out what is happening. The original explosion is quickly understood not to have been a nuclear accident. It is obviously related to what Roisin saw at the base. The various characters have different theories, and evaluate the evidence and opinions they encounter in different ways.
The British public blames the Muslims and there are unprovoked attacks, a poignant and realistic description that reminded me of the treatment of Jews in Europe just before the Holocaust. The government starts placing Muslim citizens in camps, "for their own protection". In one of the most touching scenes, which had me in tears, James rescues a Muslim family from a rioting mob. He does this out of human decency, at a time when his life and freedom are in danger. It made me wonder how far I would go to help innoccent victims. Living in a mixed city like Haifa, I can imagine such a situation erupting, with the Jewish majority suddenly turning against their Arab neighbours. Such acts of racism cannot be justified in any circumstances, and I would like to believe that many of us would act like James Travis rather than stand by and let this happen.
Roisin, meanwhile, is arrested and questioned about the photos she took at the Scottish base, which her friend managed to send to the blogger Mark Dark. She is released in an attempt to entrap James, becomes aware of this and decides not to run any more.
The world of both major characters is changed when the Execution Channel, a television station broadcasting recorded executions from around the world, shows the execution of Alec Travis, James's son and Roisin's brother, a British soldier serving in Kazakhstan, who was arrested and tortured to death by the CIA agent. This is the first instance where we encounter the cost of secrecy. James chose to become a French spy, and the cost of his secret activities is the life of his son. People considering undercover work of any sort should be aware that this endangers their loved ones. This comes down to the basic choice people sometimes have to make between ideals and individuals.
The ending of the story is what makes it science fiction (apart from it being set in an alternative near future). The truth about events is revealed, and without giving too much away, the explanation shows that certain countries were developing some innovative technology in secret. The explosion in the air base was caused by mishandling of this stolen technology, and the terrorist attacks around Britain resulted from a misunderstanding of this explosion as a trigger signal. This theme of secrecy around new technology is highly relevant in a world where superpowers, countries and organizations are competing for any advantage, particularly one that has military applications. This secrecy almost led to the outbreak of the "final war" in this novel, and it is easy to imagine some similar circumstances leading to potentially world-ending consequences in our reality. A spirit of cooperation would obviously be a better strategy for human long-term survival than the current competition between various groups. My optimism doesn't stretch far enough to believe that this is achieveable.
This is a mature, subtle and sophisticated political novel, showing MacLeod's skills at their best. It forces the reader to confront various political and ideological issues, and the ethical decisions that can result from holding various positions. Its characters are intriguing and well-drawn, to the extent that you may find yourself caring about them more than you care about what is happening in the world around them.
I just hope readers ignore the phrase on the front cover, "The war on terror is over... terror won", which does not describe the contents of this book (and I dislike the common misuse of the word "terror" to mean "terrorism"). I don't see how terrorism could win, since if they achieved their ends, the terrorist groups would form states (or a global empire) that would then suffer from internal stress and lead to new terrorist groups forming.