Review: The Cassini Division, by Ken MacLeod

Russ Allbery eagle at
Wed Oct 18 21:04:38 PDT 2023

The Cassini Division
by Ken MacLeod

Series:    Fall Revolution #3
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 1998
Printing:  August 2000
ISBN:      0-8125-6858-3
Format:    Mass market
Pages:     305

The Cassini Division is the third book in the Fall Revolution series
and a fairly direct sequel (albeit with different protagonists) to The
Stone Canal. This is not a good place to start the series.

It's impossible to talk about the plot of this book without discussing
the future history of this series, which arguably includes some
spoilers for The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal. I don't think the
direction of history matters that much in enjoying the previous books,
but read the first two books of the series before this review if you
want to avoid all spoilers.

When the Outwarders uploaded themselves and went fast, they did a lot
of strange things: an interstellar probe contrary to all known laws of
physics, the disassembly of Ganymede, and the Malley Mile, which plays
a significant role in The Stone Canal. They also crashed the Earth.

This was not entirely their fault. There were a lot of politics,
religious fundamentalism, and plagues in play as well. But the storm of
viruses broadcast from their transformed Jupiter shut down essentially
all computing equipment on Earth, which set off much of the chaos. The
results were catastrophic, and also politically transformative. Now,
the Solar Union is a nearly unified anarchosocialist society, with only
scattered enclaves of non-cooperators left outside that structure.

Ellen May Ngewthu is a leader of the Cassini Division, the bulwark that
stands between humans and the Outwarders. The Division ruthlessly
destroys any remnant or probe that dares rise out of Jupiter's
atmosphere, ensuring that the Outwarders, whatever they have become
after untold generations of fast evolution, stay isolated to the one
planet they have absorbed. The Division is very good at what they do.
But there is a potential gap in that line of defense: there are fast
folk in storage at the other end of the Malley Mile, on New Mars, and
who knows what the deranged capitalists there will do or what forces
they might unleash.

The one person who knows a path through the Malley Mile isn't talking,
so Ellen goes in search of the next best thing: the non-cooperator
scientist Isambard Kingdom Malley.

I am now thoroughly annoyed at how politics are handled in this series,
and much less confused by the frequency with which MacLeod won
Prometheus Awards from the Libertarian Futurist Society. Some of this
is my own fault for having too high of hopes for political SF, but
nothing in this series so far has convinced me that MacLeod is
seriously engaging with political systems. Instead, the world-building
to date makes the classic libertarian mistake of thinking societies
will happily abandon stability and predictability in favor of their
strange definition of freedom.

The Solar Union is based on what Ellen calls the true knowledge, which
is worth quoting in full so that you know what kind of politics we're
talking about:

  Life is a process of breaking down and using other matter, and if
  need be, other life. Therefore, life is aggression, and successful
  life is successful aggression. Life is the scum of matter, and
  people are the scum of life. There is nothing but matter, forces,
  space and time, which together make power. Nothing matters, except
  what matters to you. Might makes right, and power makes freedom. You
  are free to do whatever is in your power, and if you want to survive
  and thrive you had better do whatever is in your interests. If your
  interests conflict with those of others, let the others pit their
  power against yours, everyone for theirselves. If your interests
  coincide with those of others, let them work together with you, and
  against the rest. We are what we eat, and we eat everything.

  All that you really value, and the goodness and truth and beauty of
  life, have their roots in this apparently barren soil.

  This is the true knowledge.

  We had founded our idealism on the most nihilistic implications of
  science, our socialism on crass self-interest, our peace on our
  capacity for mutual destruction, and our liberty on determinism. We
  had replaced morality with convention, bravery with safety,
  frugality with plenty, philosophy with science, stoicism with
  anaesthetics and piety with immortality. The universal acid of the
  true knowledge had burned away a world of words, and exposed a
  universe of things.

  Things we could use.

This is certainly something that some people will believe, particularly
cynical college students who love political theory, feeling smarter
than other people, and calling their pet theories things like "the true
knowledge." It is not even remotely believable as the governing
philosophy of a solar confederation. The point of government for the
average person in human society is to create and enforce predictable
mutual rules that one can use as a basis for planning and habits,
allowing you to not think about politics all the time. People who adore
thinking about politics have great difficulty understanding how
important it is to everyone else to have ignorable government.

Constantly testing your power against other coalitions is a sport, not
a governing philosophy. Given the implication that this testing is
through violence or the threat of violence, it beggars belief that any
large number of people would tolerate that type of instability for an
extended period of time.

Ellen is fully committed to the true knowledge. MacLeod likely is not;
I don't think this represents the philosophy of the author. But the
primary political conflict in this novel famous for being political
science fiction is between the above variation of anarchy and an
anarchocapitalist society, neither of which are believable as stable
political systems for large numbers of people. This is a bit like
seeking out a series because you were told it was about a great clash
of European monarchies and discovering it was about a fight between
Liberland and Sealand. It becomes hard to take the rest of the book

I do realize that one point of political science fiction is to play
with strange political ideas, similar to how science fiction plays with
often-implausible science ideas. But those ideas need some contact with
human nature. If you're going to tell me that the key to clawing
society back from a world-wide catastrophic descent into chaos is to
discard literally every social system used to create predictability and
order, you had better be describing aliens, because that's not how
humans work.

The rest of the book is better. I am untangling a lot of backstory for
the above synopsis, which in the book comes in dribs and drabs, but
piecing that together is good fun. The plot is far more straightforward
than the previous two books on the series: there is a clear enemy, a
clear goal, and Ellen goes from point A to point B in a comprehensible
way with enough twists to keep it interesting. The core moral conflict
of the book is that Ellen is an anti-AI fanatic to the point that she
considers anyone other than non-uploaded humans to be an existential
threat. MacLeod gives the reader both reasons to believe Ellen is right
and reasons to believe she's wrong, which maintains an interesting
moral tension.

One thing that MacLeod is very good at is what Bob Shaw called "wee
thinky bits." I think my favorite in this book is the computer
technology used by the Cassini Division, who have spent a century in
close combat with inimical AI capable of infecting any digital computer
system with tailored viruses. As a result, their computers are
mechanical non-Von-Neumann machines, but mechanical with all the
technology of a highly-advanced 24th century civilization with
nanometer-scale manufacturing technology. It's a great mental image and
a lot of fun to think about.

This is the only science fiction novel that I can think of that has a
hard-takeoff singularity that nonetheless is successfully resisted and
fought to a stand-still by unmodified humanity. Most writers who were
interested in the singularity idea treated it as either a near-total
transformation leaving only remnants or as something that had to be
stopped before it started. MacLeod realizes that there's no reason to
believe a post-singularity form of life would be either uniform in
intent or free from its own baffling sudden collapses and reversals,
which can be exploited by humans. It makes for a much better story.

The sociology of this book is difficult to swallow, but the
characterization is significantly better than the previous books of the
series and the plot is much tighter. I was too annoyed by the political
science to fully enjoy it, but that may be partly the fault of my
expectations coming in. If you like chewy, idea-filled science fiction
with a lot of unexplained world-building that you have to puzzle out as
you go, you may enjoy this, although unfortunately I think you need to
read at least The Stone Canal first. The ending was a bit unsatisfying,
but even that includes some neat science fiction ideas.

Followed by The Sky Road, although I understand it is not a
straightforward sequel.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-10-18


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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