Review: The Stone Canal, by Ken MacLeod

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sat May 20 19:31:45 PDT 2023

The Stone Canal
by Ken MacLeod

Series:    Fall Revolution #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 1996
Printing:  January 2001
ISBN:      0-8125-6864-8
Format:    Mass market
Pages:     339

The Stone Canal is a sort of halfway sequel to The Star Fraction. They
both take place in the same universe, but the characters are almost
entirely disjoint. Half of The Stone Canal happens (mostly) well before
the previous book and the other half happens well after it. This book
does contain spoilers for the ending of The Star Fraction if one
connects the events of the two books correctly (which was a bit harder
than I thought it should be), so I would not read them out of order.

At the start of The Stone Canal, Jon Wilde wakes up on New Mars beside
the titular canal, in the middle of nowhere, accompanied only by a
robot that says it made him. Wilde remembers dying on Earth; this new
life is apparently some type of resurrection. It's a long walk to Ship
City, the center of civilization of a place the robot tells him is New

In Ship City, an android named Dee Model has escaped from her owner and
is hiding in a bar. There, she meets an AI abolitionist named Tamara,
who helps her flee out the back and down the canal on a boat when Wilde
walks into the bar and immediately recognizes her. The abolitionists
provide her protection and legal assistance to argue her case for
freedom from her owner, a man named Reid.

The third thread of the story, and about half the book, is Jon Wilde's
life on Earth, starting in 1975 and leading up to the chaotic wars,
political fracturing, and revolutions that formed the background and
plot of The Star Fraction. Eventually that story turns into a
full-fledged science fiction setting, but not until the last 60 pages
of the book.

I successfully read two books in a Ken MacLeod series! Sadly, I'm not
sure I enjoyed the experience.

I commented in my review of The Star Fraction that the appeal for me in
MacLeod's writing was his reputation as a writer of political science
fiction. Unfortunately that's been a bust. The characters are certainly
political, in the sense that they profess to have strong political
viewpoints and are usually members of some radical (often Trotskyite)
organization. There are libertarian anarchist societies and lots of
political conflict. But there is almost no meaningful political
discussion in any of these books so far. The politics are all tactical
or background, and often seem to be created by authorial fiat.

For example, New Mars is a sort of libertarian anarchy that somehow
doesn't have corporations or a strongman ruler, even though the history
(when we finally learn it) would have naturally given rise to one or
the other (and has, in numerous other SF novels with similar plots).
There's a half-assed explanation for this towards the end of the book
that I didn't find remotely believable. Another part of the book
describes the formation of the libertarian microstate The Star
Fraction, but never answers a "why" or "how" question I had in the
previous book in a satisfying way. Somehow people stop caring about
control or predictability or stability or traditional hierarchy without
any significant difficulties except external threats, in situations of
chaos and disorder where historically humans turn to anyone promising
firm structure.

It's common to joke about MacLeod winning multiple libertarian
Prometheus Awards for his fiction despite being a Scottish communist.
I'm finding that much less surprising now that I've read more of his
books. Whether or not he believes in it himself, he's got the cynical
libertarian smugness and hand-waving down pat.

What his characters do care deeply about is smoking, drinking, and
having casual sex. (There's more political fire here around opposition
to anti-smoking laws than there is about any of the society-changing
political structures that somehow fall into place.) I have no
objections to any of those activities from a moral standpoint, but
reading about other people doing them is a snoozefest. The flashback
scenes sketch out enough imagined history to satisfy some curiosity
from the previous book, but they're mostly about the world's least
interesting love triangle, involving two completely unlikable men and
lots of tedious jealousy and posturing.

The characters in The Stone Canal are, in general, a problem. One of
those unlikable men is Wilde, the protagonist for most of the book. Not
only did I never warm to him, I never figured out what motivates him or
what he cares about. He's a supposedly highly political person who
seems to engage in politics with all the enthusiasm of someone filling
out tax forms, and is entirely uninterested in explaining to the reader
any sort of coherent philosophical approach. The most interesting
characters in this book are the women (Annette, Dee Model, Tamara, and,
very late in the book, Meg), but other than Dee Model they rarely get
much focus from the story.

By far the best part of this book is the last 60 pages, where MacLeod
finally explains the critical bridge events between Wilde's political
history on earth and the New Mars society. I thought this was
engrossing, fast-moving, and full of interesting ideas (at least for a
1990s book; many of them feel a bit stale now, 25 years later). It was
also frustrating, because this was the book I wanted to have been
reading for the previous 270 pages, instead of MacLeod playing coy with
his invented history or showing us interminable scenes about Wilde's
insecure jealousy over his wife. It's also the sort of book where at
one point characters (apparently uniformly male as far as one could
tell from the text of the book) get assigned sex slaves, and while
MacLeod clearly doesn't approve of this, the plot is reminiscent of a
Heinlein novel: the protagonist's sex slave becomes a very loyal
permanent female companion who seems to have the same upside for the
male character in question.

This was unfortunately not the book I was hoping for. I did enjoy the
last hundred pages, and it's somewhat satisfying to have the history
come together after puzzling over what happened for 200 pages. But I
found the characters tedious and annoying and the politics weirdly
devoid of anything like sociology, philosophy, or political science.
There is the core of a decent 1990s AI and singularity novel here, but
the technology is now rather dated and a lot of other people have
tackled the same idea with fewer irritating ticks.

Not recommended, although I'll probably continue to The Cassini
Division because the ending was a pretty great hook for another book.

Followed by The Cassini Division.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-05-20


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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