The Cassini Division

I've been holding off on reading Ken MacLeod's books despite the huge volume of praise they've received because the type of praise and the people delivering it suggested to me that they wouldn't really be my thing. The books are celebrated enough that I had to take at least a look, so when I saw The Cassini Division in mass-market pb, I picked it up to read on the plane to and from France last week (I realize this is not supposed to be a good place to start, but it's the only one in mmpb in the States, and I'm not paid well enough to buy books I don't expect to like in hardcover).

I wound up spending most of the flight watching British Airways's nifty personal video screens (reviews: Frequency: not bad at all. Gone in 60 Seconds: very bad indeed on a screen the size of a paperback. The first 20 minutes of Chicken Run: still a hoot.), but I did get a start on the book, which I finished last night.

All in all, my reaction comes as no real surprise (possibly a self-fulfilling prophecy, but who knows). I didn't exactly bounce off it, but it's just not my thing. The gadgets and settings were cool enough (though with the exception of the "babbages," they weren't really anything that hasn't been seen elsewhere), and I probably would've been happy with them had they been employed in the service of a different plot.

Such as the plot was, anyway. It was very much in the meandering Heinleinian mode of using a contrived series of future-historical events as an excuse to pause frequently and lecture about political philosophy. This is where it just isn't my thing- I'm a fairly apolitical guy, all in all, and I'm just not excited by the theory of political systems (and theory it was, for the most part, since both the Solar Union and New Mars appear to be populated with the spherical, frictionless humans beloved of theorists...). The book was further undermined by the tendency to deliver the political information in infodumps from the same genus as the dread "As you know, Bob...," constructed from Straczynski-class Tin Ear Dialogue (though, to be fair, I really like the phrase "The Rapture for Nerds"). The moral questions which are supposed to be raised by the main character's actions never really gelled for me (probably because the internal narration is so slanted), and the way things fall out at the end felt cheap (this is deliberately vague to avoid spoilers- more detail will be provided on request).

So, all in all, the book pretty much met my expectations. The main attraction, as suggested by the threads that it spawns with its cousins, is found in the political systems inhabited by the characters. Given the poor mode-matching between the book's focus and my personal interests, it was pretty much doomed to fail- I was basically unimpressed by the writing and plotting.

So, as a review, my conclusion has to be "It's a book that will be well liked by those who like that sort of thing." There's no denying that the social and political systems depicted for the Solar Union and New Mars are cleverly constructed, and if speculation about anarchist utopias is your thing, this is the book for you. The plot ends up being a bit thin due to all the time spent on the politics, and the whiz-bang ending doesn't really make up for that, so if you're after rollicking politicized space opera, you'd be better off digging up some old Heinlein.

Thoughts? Comments? I probably won't bother with any of his other books unless a fair number of people I trust tell me that the balance between politics and plot shifts between this book and the others.

Last modified: 27 February, 2001