Review: The Star Fraction, by Ken MacLeod

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sun Mar 19 21:09:53 PDT 2023

The Star Fraction
by Ken MacLeod

Series:    Fall Revolution #1
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: 1995
Printing:  2001
ISBN:      1-85723-833-8
Format:    Trade paperback
Pages:     341

Ken MacLeod is a Scottish science fiction writer who has become
amusingly famous for repeatedly winning the libertarian Prometheus
Award despite being a (somewhat libertarian-leaning) socialist. The
Star Fraction is the first of a loose series of four novels about
future solar system politics and was nominated for the Clarke Award (as
well as winning the Prometheus). It was MacLeod's first novel.

Moh Kohn is a mercenary, part of the Felix Dzerzhinsky Workers' Defence
collective. They're available for hire to protect research labs and
universities against raids from people such as animal liberationists
and anti-AI extremists (or, as Moh calls them, creeps and cranks). As
The Star Fraction opens, he and his smart gun are protecting a lab
against an attack.

Janis Taine is a biologist who is currently testing a memory-enhancing
drug on mice. It's her lab that is attacked, although it isn't
vandalized the way she expected. Instead, the attackers ruined her
experiment by releasing the test drug into the air, contaminating all
of the controls. This sets off a sequence of events that results in
Moh, Janis, and Jordon Brown, a stock trader for a religious theocracy,
on the run from the US/UN and Space Defense.

I had forgotten what it was like to read the uncompromising old-school
style of science fiction novel that throws you into the world and
explains nothing, leaving it to the reader to piece the world together
as you go. It's weirdly fun, but I'm either out of practice or this was
a particularly challenging example of the genre. MacLeod throws a lot
of characters at you quickly, including some that have long and
complicated personal histories, and it's not until well into the book
that the pieces start to cohere into a narrative. Even once that
happens, the relationship between the characters and the plot is
unobvious until late in the book, and comes from a surprising

Science fiction as a genre is weirdly conservative about political
systems. Despite the grand, futuristic ideas and the speculation about
strange alien societies, the human governments rarely rise to the
sophistication of a modern democracy. There are a lot of empires,
oligarchies, and hand-waved libertarian semi-utopias, but not a lot of
deep engagement with the speculative variety of government systems
humans have proposed. The rare exceptions therefore get a lot of
attention from those of us who find political systems fascinating.

MacLeod has a reputation for writing political SF in that sense, and
The Star Fraction certainly delivers. Moh (despite the name of his
collective, which is explained briefly in the book) is a Trotskyist
with a family history with the Fourth International that is central to
the plot. The setting is a politically fractured Britain full of
autonomous zones with wildly different forms of government,
theoretically ruled by a restored monarchy. That monarchy is opposed by
the Army of the New Republic, which claims to be the legitimate
government of the United Kingdom and is considered by everyone else to
be terrorists. Hovering in the background is a UN entirely subsumed by
the US, playing global policeman over a chaotic world shattered by
numerous small-scale wars.

This satisfyingly different political world is a major plus for me. The
main drawback is that I found the world-building and politics more
interesting than the characters. It's not that I disliked them; I found
them enjoyably quirky and odd. It's more that so much is happening and
there are so many significant characters, all set in an unfamiliar and
unexplained world and often divided into short scenes of a few pages,
that I had a hard time keeping track of them all. Part of the point of
The Star Fraction is digging into their tangled past and connecting it
up with the present, but the flashbacks added a confused timeline on
top of the other complexity and made it hard for me to get lost in the
story. The characters felt a bit too much like puzzle pieces until the
very end of the book.

The technology is an odd mix with a very 1990s feel. MacLeod is one of
the SF authors who can make computers and viruses believable, avoiding
the cyberpunk traps, but AI becomes relevant to the plot and the
conception of AI here feels oddly retro. (Not MacLeod's fault; it's
been nearly 30 years and a lot has changed.) On-line discussion in the
book is still based on newsgroups, which added to the nostalgic feel. I
did like the eventual explanation for the computing part of the plot,
though; I can't say much while avoiding spoilers, but it's one of the
more believable explanations for how a technology could spread in a way
required for the plot that I've read.

I've been planning on reading this series for years but never got
around to it. I enjoyed my last try at a MacLeod series well enough to
want to keep reading, but not well enough to keep reading immediately,
and then other books happened and now it's been 19 years. I feel
similarly about The Star Fraction: it's good enough (and in a rare
enough subgenre of SF) that I want to keep reading, but not enough to
keep reading immediately. We'll see if I manage to get to the next book
in a reasonable length of time.

Followed by The Stone Canal.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-03-19


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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