Beyond the Hallowed Sky by Ken MacLeod

The first in a trilogy: now, there’s a phrase to make the heart sink.

On the one hand, this is a straightforward piece of hard science fiction about the development of FTL travel, set in an intriguing future in which England and Scotland are in an (even more) uneasy relationship, as part of separate polities. One of them is clearly based on the European Union; the other a kind of bastard coalition of the US and client countries. There’s a third polity, something to do with Russia, don’t mention the war.

As the first in a trilogy, this is not a book in a hurry to unfold its secrets, so the reader is confronted with a narrative split into several different strands. One strand follows a mathematician-scientist who gets a letter from her future self; another follows a ship building cooperative in Scotland; another seems to be on a lightyears-distant planet where scientists and colonist-squatters have an uneasy relationship with the local rocks; and then there’s an orbiting science station exploring Venus.

Needless to say, these threads will pull together, as the reader trusts when setting out. It’s not a bad read: quite entertaining, though it does take the reader a while to follow the various threads because there are so many of them. I like Ken MacLeod’s style, though I’ve not read much of his stuff. To be honest, there’s a whole confusion of Scottish-named science fiction writers and it’s not easy to keep track. This seems to be becoming a theme. Ian McDonald, Ian R MacLeod, Ken MacLeod: I’m not joking. It’s really hard to keep track of who writes what. Anyway, I’ve read some of Ken MacLeod’s short fiction, I think, and I’ve read Learning the World, and possibly Cosmonaut Keep, though don’t quote me.

Quite entertaining, but you know what I’m about to say: it doesn’t have a proper ending. And the question is, if this wasn’t 99p would I have tried it? And if the sequel comes along and it’s £8.99 or more, would I be desperate to read it? And the answer, I think, to both of those questions, is no.

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