Ken MacLeod’s strength as a sci-fi writer is his inventive world building. He pulls together elements from history and social theory to create future societies which are unexpected yet plausible. Descent serves primarily as a tableau which Ken paints with echoes of the New Deal, as the reader follows Ryan’s coming of age journey and those of his close friends who share a tight bond. The bond of an alien abduction. This is still sci-fi, after all.
While the story is nominally powered by the mystery of the aforementioned abduction, I found myself drawn more to the way the world developed around it. MacLeod paints a world where following a series of crises, capitalism had to be saved from its own contradictions through a social democratic Big Deal that may have only papered over these contradictions but certainly improved the conditions of life for Ryan and his friends.
The Big Deal provides the conditions necessary for ramjets, drones and all sorts of technological maguffins which our sci-fi novel needs. But the real story is not rockets and space travel, but Ryan’s personal journey, as he falls into and out of love, distorted by jealousy into a twisted individual who spends his days stalking his ex-fiancee through the obiquious surveilance drones present in this world.
Ken draws some excellent parallels around our own presentation and self-censorship in a future society where surveillance is commonplace. Between the conspiracy theories which Ryan is drawn to after his abduction, the revolutionaries who hide in the business world, the public or private spooks and the scientists protecting their research from public eyes, this becomes the central pivot about which the story swings.
This book retains faith in the intelligence and engagement of its readers, with a resolution which doesn’t spell out answers to all the questions posed earlier. I’m a sucker for this kind of storytelling which leaves the reader to infer their own answers, but when combined with a rapidly paced conclusion this could leave some readers unfulfilled.
The characterisation is better than you might expect from a genre renowned for cardboard cutouts, and MacLeod peppers the dialogue with Scottishisms to breathe an earthy charm into them. The prose reads well, establishing fearful scenes on the foggy moors while keeping the story moving along at a steady clip.
On the whole, Descent is an enjoyable romp through the lives of well-developed characters which touches on science and society and raises questions without getting bogged down in treatises.