Ken MacLeod
The Stone Canal (1996)
Reviewed: 2002-08-22

Machine life, artificial intelligence, uploading, downloading, even some good ol' fashioned virtual reality, anarcho-capitalism, the Singularity, posthuman entities, resurrection of the dead, questions of identity among replicated minds. It could come straight from the pages of Extropy Institute. All the familiar transhumanist motifs are there.

A man awakens in the barren landscape of New Mars. His last memory is that of his death. At his side is a robot, the machine that created him. Together they enter a strange city to conduct their affairs. Their path is crossed by a gynoid, a woman's cloned body sheltering an AI who has recently gained self-consciousness, has subsequently fled her owner, and is about to receive sanctuary by abolitionists.

The Stone Canal can be a challenging read. It has a complex narrative structure, interweaving two story lines in an approach similar to that of Use of Weapons by MacLeod's chum Iain M. Banks. One line follows the life of Jon Wilde, student, political commentator, entrepreneur, anarchist agitator, and self-described opportunist, from the 1970s through the troubled first half of the 21st century, to WW3 and beyond. The other plot starts with a resurrected Jon Wilde on New Mars. The reader is cast into the story without orientation. Piece by piece a picture of the world and the characters' motives emerge over the course of the book, and the two story lines are headed for a final collision.

MacLeod uses a rich fountain of ideas but provides very little in the way of explanations, which may be disorienting to readers who have had no former exposure to some of the political and futuristic concepts taken for granted in the novel. Those, on the other hand, who have discussed these ideas at length will greatly enjoy finding their thoughts wrapped in the author's witty prose. Libertarians in particular will be pleased with the depiction of two anarchist societies, which netted the novel the 1998 Prometheus Award.

The decades and events covered by The Stone Canal also encompass those of MacLeod's previous novel, The Star Fraction, and in retrospect the underlying history of that book becomes much clearer.

Good stuff.

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