Book note: The dawn of interstellar travel


Ken MacLeod’s newest SF novel, the first in a trilogy, is on a theme that’s new to me – the discovery of faster-the-light travel, and its impact on earthly events.

It’s set about 50 years in the future, when the world is divided into three power blocs, the Union, the Alliance and the Co-ordinated States.

The Union includes all of Europe, including Ireland and Scotland, but not England.  The Alliance consists of the Anglosphere—the USA (where democracy has been “recently restored”), England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—plus India. The Coordinated States are Russia, China and their satellites.

The Union is the most interesting of the three.  It has recently undergone something called a “Rising” which has brought about something called a “Cold Revolution.”

The events of the Rising are only vaguely known because the instigators have had all personal records of their activities deleted from the Internet.  It seems to me like something resembling H.G. Wells’ Open Conspiracy, in which like-minded intelligent people understand what needs to be done, and work together to lead the way, without being directed from any center.

In the Union, there is an entity called Iskander, an “algorithmic anticipatory artificial intelligence,” which has access to all on-line information, whether from the equivalents of the NSA or of Facebook.  It can be talked to, and it fulfills requests, like Apple Computer’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa.

Iskander is not only a provider of information and services.  It also is part of the Union’s military-intelligence system. It may ask you whether you a cup of coffee, or it may ask you whether you want to defect.

The novel opens when a young Alliance mathematician gets a letter from her future self proving that faster-than-light travel, contrary to Einstein, is possible. She does not dismiss it out of hand because, if faster-than-light travel is possible, time travel is also possible.

(This is not something I understand at all, but if time slows down to nearly zero as you approach the speed of light, then it’s not crazy to think it would go into reverse if you exceed the speed of light.)

She publishes her proof in the expectation that it will be refuted. She is attacked on all sides, but not convinced she is wrong.  

Finally she gets a visit from a mysterious figure who tells her that, by a strange coincidence, all mathematicians who’ve published such proofs have died soon after.

Taking that hint, she defects to the Union, joins with other bright young people to build an actual FTL ship and then are amazed to learn that the Alliance and Coordinated States have had bases on a planet of another star, and have had FTL travel for at least that long.

This would imply that covert interstellar travel is going on right now. How is this possible?  Presumably the next volumes in the series will tell us.

Also, pioneers at the interstellar base are discovering things that all in question our ideas about the nature and origins of life.

Ken MacLeod’s novels are notable for being dense with science fictional and political ideas.  I think he’d be more popular and better understood than he is if he limited himself to one strong idea per novel.

I like his work and you will like his novels, too, if they are the kind of thing you like.


Ken MacLeod Wikipedia page.

The Early Days of a Better NationKen MacLeod’s blog.

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One Response to “Book note: The dawn of interstellar travel”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    Yeah. True FTL travel involves a violation of causality, which is expressly forbidden in the physics we know.

    Warp drive gets around this by warping space itself by compressing the space ahead of you and expanding the space behind. It is possible in theory using Einstein’s equations but takes phenomenally large amounts of energy and how you’d engineer it is unknown.


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