Cover of The Execution Channel

The Execution Channel
Ken MacLeod
307 pages
published in 2007

The Execution Channel is MacLeod's newest science fiction novel and a return to the sort of book he made his name with, after several more traditional sf novels: intensily political, near future novels in settings that seems to flow logically from our own times and as a reaction to contemporary political developments. In science fiction the urge to respond to current events often results in shallow, cliched tripe, but that's never the case with Macleod, largely because he's a better writer than that, but also because he doesn't as much respond to a single event as to the general direction politics is taken. In his Fall Revolution novels he was partially responding to the accelerating pace of globalisation and the role of the US as a caretaker superpower, here it's the War on Terror and the emergence of the hypersecurity state and the increasing brutalisation of our societies as a result of this, made visible by the concept of the execution channel. Which is exactly what it sounds like, a tv channel dedicated to showing state sanctioned killings.

MacLeod has been at his best so far when he's writing near-future science fiction and The Execution Channel is about as near-future as you can get, set perhaps ten years from now, perhaps only five. It's a future in which all the fears we've had and still have about the War on Terror have become true: American and British troops not just in Iraq and Afghanistan anymore, but all over the Middle East, while in Britain itself the security state has taken over, terrorism is rampant and this in turn has led to pogroms against Muslims. And then a military airfield, RAF Leuchars, is hit by what looks like a nuclear attack. From there on things get worse.

At the heart of The Execution Channel is the Travis family. Roisin Travis, an antiwar activist is outside the base getting info on a mysterious device being brought it when she gets an urgent text message from her brother in the army serving in the War on Terror, telling her to get away now. She has barely convinced the other activists to do so and are driving away from their camp when the explosion happens. The first thing Roisin does is to ring her father, James Travis, and ensure him she's alright. What she doesn't know is that for the past four years or so he has been a spy for the French intelligence service, hacking Britains IT systems for them. He knows something big has begun, that this attack is more than just terrorism and that the most likely explenation might just be an attack by the other side in the New Cold War: Russia, China, North Korea or even France.

Roisin and James are the main characters, but in true MacLeod style the story is told not just from their perspective, but through several other players as well. One of which is conspiracy theorist Mark Dark, an American political blogger who focuses on security and miltech matters, rightwing but honest. It's through him we learn of the central conceit behind The Execution Channel, that this is not our future.

In fact this is the future of a world in which Al Gore won the 2000 elections, or rather robbed them in the November coup, when the election was too close to call. According to Mark Dark, if only the Florida electorial commission hadn't disallow the Workers World Party from entering a candidate. The few hundred extra votes that because of this went to Gore ending up giving him the edge over Bush. And without Gore, the 9/11 attacks would never have happened, the War on Terror wouldn't have started and the world would not be in the mess it is now.

It's a nice, ironic twist, a rejection of the idea held by far too many people in the real world that if only Gore had won the elections the past seven years would have gone much better, by showing exactly the opposite, a alternate history that has gone much worse. It's an oldfashioned socialist point to make about the course of history and the forces that shape it. But it's also a cheat.

A cheat, because MacLeod shows us an incredibly bleak future where we can't get to. It's almost as if he couldn't bring himself to predict this future for us, or more likely, that he didn't want to deal with the inevitable inaccuracy of predictions so close to the present and hence made sure it was never going to be our future at all.

Now when I came to this point in the novel, about a third of the way in, I had been reading it in cold fascination, only to stop dead. It was almost a bookthrowing moment. Almost, because MacLeod managed to win me over in the end with the sheer interestness of his alternate history. From there on The Execution Channel was a real pageturner that kept me up until four AM reading. Not much sleep afterwards either.

The climax was especially intense, as it should be, with nuclear attack sirens going off in Oslo, harking back to that recurring nightmare I grew up with in the early eighties. Not that MacLeod ends his novels with something as mundane as nuclear war, horrifying as that would be. No, something wonderful happens at the end of the book, something that is proper science fiction, a complete surprise the seeds of which have been sown from page one. It was very smart, but it was also a bit of an anticlimax.

In the end I'm not quite sure what to make of The Execution Channel. It is beyond a shadow of a doubt a near-brilliant book, one of MacLeod's best, but it was also unsatisfying in some ways. It's a clever alternate history, but I think I'd rather had seen it played straight. One for the reread pile in any rate.

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Webpage created 25-08-2007, last updated 23-01-2008.