The Cassini Division: Action-packed

The Cassini Division by Ken MacLeod science fiction book reviewsThe Cassini Division by Ken MacLeod

The Stone Canal, predecessor to The Cassini Division, saw a flurry of technical, and as a result, social developments, moving one part of humanity to post-human status. And so while Wilde and Reid’s personal matters were resolved, larger matters, that is, an agreement between standard and post-humans was left hanging, with a peaceful resolution far from certain. Focusing precisely on this schism, The Cassini Division, Ken MacLeod’s third novel in the FALL REVOLUTION sequence, brings the implications of Singularity to a full head.

Set 350 years after the events of The Star Fraction, The Cassini Division is told through the eyes of Ellen May Ngwethu, captain of the spaceship Terrible Beauty and one of Cassini Division’s most prominent officers. Assigned to the protection of humanity, she and her comrades occupy the moon Callisto, dutifully guarding the wormhole and the hive-like construction on Jupiter from any post-human incursion. At the outset of the novel, Ellen is sent to Earth to bring back Sam Malley, a brilliant physicist responsible for the mathematics supporting the engineering of the wormhole. Cassini Division has a mind to enlist his help for a sortie through the ‘hole to meet with New Mars. Since he is a non-cooperator — a capitalist, that is — finding Malley amongst the dirty underbelly of London’s non-Socialists on Earth proves tricky, while convincing him to join their team proves even more so. Ellen, fully believing the fate of humanity hangs in the balance, pursues her mission with confidence and stubbornness, and ultimately takes her fight to other star systems. Whether the post-humans have good intentions, well, that the reader will have to discover alongside Ellen.

Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 featured a non-white female protagonist who went about her business with intelligence and confidence. In no way aping Rydra Wong, MacLeod does the same with Ellen May Ngwethu, a black woman captaining a crew of racial “misfits,” and her convictions motivate every decision and action taken. From risking the finding of Malley herself to making the decision to attack a certain something at the novel’s climax, from sexual choices to taking the lead in negotiations, Ellen proves herself a strong female protagonist, not just a buxom body in a tight jumpsuit. MacLeod deserves credit for the character created.

While it’s debatable whether the version of humanity Aldous Huxley portrays in Brave New World is post-human, it certainly is dissimilar to the version of humanity today. In The Cassini Division, MacLeod likewise draws a line between humanity and post-humans, with no room left for guessing in their altogether alien form of “living.” Ellen Ngwethu’s hatred for the “accelerated” oozes off the pages as MacLeod patiently introduces external factors which call into doubt the existential substance of these entities — the fast thinkers —without revealing his own stance on the subject until the climax. Suffice to say that death plays an important role, just as with Brave New World. (And that is not the spoiler you may think it is.)

I have read numerous reviews disgusted with an idea that Ellen represents MacLeod’s own leftist leanings. Given that the author takes the piss out of her and her colleagues at several points, including a key moment at the climax, it’s tough for me to agree. Yes, Ellen is 100% socialist, but the totality of her beliefs does not match the subtlety of the story. MacLeod is simply too clever to leave himself exposed as such. Thus, anyone reading the story would do well to remain neutral and trust that MacLeod has more on his agenda than simply cramming socialist ideology down the reader’s throat. Ellen is merely a character in form, meaning the novel is not propaganda per se. The other three books of the FALL REVOLUTION likewise present imagined visions of various ideologies, and The Cassini Division just happens to be the most socialist — a fact indeed hammered home by the strength of Ellen’s convictions, but is not the be all, end all.

The Cassini Division is the most action-packed novel of the FALL REVOLUTION sequence to date. Closing out the story arc started in The Stone Canal, all readers’ questions regarding the nature and intent of the post-humans are answered. Readers are likewise introduced to a wonderful character in Ellen May Ngwethu. Acting on informed convictions, holding her tongue for the greater good, and taking no shit when the situation demands it, she is the anchor pin holding the exciting story that unravels around her — and because of her — in place. MacLeod nicely juxtaposes the political ideals of socialism, capitalism, post-humanism, and anarcho-capitalism in a story which emphasizes the main thrusts of each through character. It remains only for The Sky Road to put it all in context.

I would like to make mention of a difference in the publication order in case this is the first book by Ken MacLeod the reader has come across. Published for the U.S. market two years after first appearing in the U.K., Tor made the (foolish) decision to publish The Cassini Division first, destroying the continuity MacLeod intended. U.S. readers would do best to start with The Star Fraction and work in order from there. The books are certainly not entry level sci-fi, but for the intelligent reader they can be very rewarding. The correct order is: The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division, and The Sky Road.


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JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

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