Story Review: The Stone Canal


The Stone Canal is the second book in Ken McLeod's Fall Revolution series. You might call it a sequel to The Star Fraction, which I reviewed earlier, but it isn't really a sequel in the traditional sense. See below the break for further explanation.



The main character is Jonathon Wilde, who was only mentioned briefly in the previous novel as part of the world, inconsequential to the story (at least from the perspective we saw it). The story is also told in two timelines. The primary line takes place an appreciable amount of time in the future, where a group of humans have colonized a distant world and set up a very interesting society. The second timeline takes place just before and during the events of The Star Fraction, as seen from Wilde's perspective.


In the primary story line, Wilde wakes up unexpectedly just outside the only city on New Mars. He is quite perplexed, as his last memories are of his death back on Earth, back before true space travel was even a thing. As it turns out, his mind had been preserved after his death, and he had just awoken in a newly cloned body of his old self. To add to his confusion, this is all explained to him by a robot who claims to be none other than Jonathon Wilde, albeit one that's lived a bit longer since his death.


The city that he has woken up in takes the form of an anarchist society with no government, but it is quite distant from a libertarian paradise such as Norlonto. Prior to the planet's suitability for habitation by humans, the city was constructed by robots many of whom were people that currently live in the city and made the journey through the portal as a digitally stored mind. Despite having experienced machine consciousness themselves, the population has taken a general stance against the existence of machine consciousness, and the few human-equivalent machines that still exist or that have been created since do not have any rights. Also of interest to the world-builidng, there happens to be entire sections of the city populated solely by wild machines. The majority don't seem to be intelligent. They are the planet's analog to wild animals, competing with each other for resources, reproducing variants of themselves, and generally subject to the survival of the fittest.


At the same time of the new Wilde's awakening, a human gynoid known as Model D (she has the cloned body of a human, but an artificially produced mind, and thus no rights) becomes smart enough to enter full consciousness and runs away from her owner. As it turns out, Model D's owner is a powerful man named David Reid, who has a long history with Wilde in their previous lives on Earth. Boiling it down to the relevant parts, Reid and Wilde were best friends, but Reid was jealous of Wilde's wife (who is the basis for D's cloned body) and, for unrelated political reasons, ended up killing Wilde.


The story continues with D's first experiences as a conscious being, in which she goes on a killing rampage with a disabled man who wants to take out his anger. We find out that murder isn't all that much of a crime in this new society due to cloning and mind-digitization technology. The penalty is usually something equivalent to the monetary and time losses of the victim, since the poor can usually only afford yearly backups, and growing disease-free clones can be expensive. Meanwhile, Wilde, along with an Abolitionist fighting for machine rights, go to court with Reid (yes, there can be and are courts in an anarchist society) over the rights/possession of Model D and the murder of Johnathon Wilde. The court finds the situation in favor of Wilde and D, at which point Reid takes matters into his own violent hands.


His initial attempts to murder Wilde are circumvented, but he eventually captures the group, at which point Wilde (the older robot one) explains the motivations behind his actions (he was the one compelled D into consciousness). As it turns out he's discovered that the fast-folk are a major threat to humanity. The fast-folk were highly advanced AIs that constructed the portal which brought them to New Mars, but they have a tendency to decay into a degraded state. They were shut down and left inaccessible by Reid as a result, but Wilde needs access to their knowledge in order to go back through the portal and warn Earth. Reid and Wilde eventually work out their differences and come up with a compromise that solves the problem and works for both of them.


The second timeline is extremely important to understanding everything that's going on in the first, and in my opinion, it's actually the more interesting of the two. It details Wilde's life on Earth and starts in a political climate not too dissimilar to the present. Wilde and Reid are best friends in college who love discussing anarchist and socialist philosophy. They have their differences and eventually go their separate ways, still remaining in contact when it's advantageous. Wilde marries Annette, who they met in college, and establishes the space movement, a libertarian organization focused on freedom and expansion into space that becomes successful and hugely influential. The UN, dominated by the US, slowly becomes the controlling gobal power. Germany builds up its military in an effort to oppose the unilateralism of the US/UN, sparking the outbreak of WWIII, but looses when the war goes nuclear, firmly establishing the US/UN as the world dictator.


During the war, the the UK's political parties become divided on whether to remain neutral or join in on the side of the US/UN. The democratically elected party in power opts to remain neutral, but the opposing party, along with the King, disagree and form their own government. For obvious reasons, the US/UN immediately recognizes the new, unelected government as official. This leads to a very odd civil war in which the two sides are cooperating rather than fighting, with the pro-war side taking control of the military and the neutral side preparing citizens for self-defense. The US/UN doesn't immediately take action on the civil war, but after defeating Germany, moves into the UK to violently suppress opposition to the new government. It's a much longer process than the US/UN cares to be involved in, and begin offering agreements with each of the local resistance leaders, including Wilde. The old government also hands all power over to its military, which decides to go into hiding and rally the public to its cause when the time is right (this becomes the ANR in The Star Fraction). Wilde and the space movement receive Norlonto as their own little piece of the UK.


I wanted to keep this review short, but The Stone Canal, just like The Star Fraction is a very complex and intertwined novel. A summary can't do it justice, and I would highly recommend you read it. There was a lot I left out that is very interesting, such as the personal relationships and philosophical ponderings of Wilde on Earth (I focused more on the larger picture world-building because I found it so interesting). The story of how and why New Mars was colonized is also explored, which I didn't touch on a whole lot here. A proper reading of the book is necessary to fully appreciate the story and its complexity.


Overall, I would give it a positive review and recommendation. It was highly enjoyable and thought-provoking, though I did feel that the story started out rather dry. It was actually kind of the opposite of The Star Fraction, which started out super interesting and ended with a rather underwhelming conclusion. For some reason, even though the subject matter of the events in the primary timeline hit all the points I like, it felt a little boring until the action started to ramp up towards the climax. The second timeline, though, was much more interesting and had a lot of little interesting concepts. One particular idea that I thought was pretty cool was the idea of selling nuclear deterrence. Rogue boomers and those in possession of former Soviet nukes took up the business of selling nuclear deterrence without selling the nukes themselves to smaller nations and companies. This was done by starting a contract that promised a nation use of a nuke for a retaliatory strike if they were struck first, and allowed the nuke-holders to sell far more contracts than they had nukes.


The writing itself was also pretty good, which isn't something that usually stands out to me if it's done well. But there were a couple specific lines in the book which might not have been particularly special, but impacted me in a memorable way. The double alternating timeline that the story was told in also reminded me of Iain Banks' Use of Weapons, which is absolutely my favorite novel. It maybe wasn't as convoluted, but it worked well and furthered the parallel between the two (I've noted other reviewers have made a comparison between these two, which speaks well to McLeod). It also doesn't need to be read following The Star Fraction, as the story is related but independent. This is how I prefer stories to be, set in the same universe with connections to each other, but not money-milking sequels that continue the same story (another parallel with Banks). So even if you haven't read The Star Fraction, go read The Stone Canal.