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Descent, by Ken MacLeod

review published on April 23, 2014. Reviewed by Ian Simpson

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

It is fairly unusual to come across UFO/abduction themed genre fiction in the modern era. It was a big deal in the 1980s, but not so much now. However, the opening chapter hints that there’s much more than meets the eye in Ken MacLeod’s Descent. Indeed, we appear to have landed in the middle of a story with a somewhat objectionable character and there’s little hint to what’s going on.

Ryan – Sinky to his friends, of which he has few – understands what people are really seeing when they report UFO sightings – weather balloons, experimental craft and such like. He even justifies what happens to Calum and himself when walking in the hills in Scotland; a mysterious light descends and they wake up in a circle of ash several hours later. But when the dream comes, the potential missing memory, his cynicism is tested. Ryan’s world is a very possible extrapolation of today’s society – nothing is secret, everything is tracked, recorded, reported by cameras, drones, CCTV, phones and everything that exists, does so online. As Ryan grows older, passing through college and into the world of employment, he can’t figure out what happened and who to trust.
During his adolescent years, his education and his path into adulthood, Ryan has a number of relationships from friends, parents, women and the mysterious Mr Baxter (Ryan thinks he might be a Man-in-Black). The events and relationships that surround him and shape him throughout these years result from what happened that day on that hill. Sometimes you feel like Ryan is getting a handle on the situation or getting to grips with living a normal existence, then MacLeod pulls the rug from beneath you and makes you doubt the reality of what is going on. This isn’t a story about a UFO abductee loosing his mind, but a story about how a single event can inform a life-time of choices. Some choices are forced upon him, others are so subtle that you start to believe that Ryan is being played, and has been from the start. He starts the story as a decent enough kid with ambitions but ends up unambitious, sleazy, self-absorbed, jealous and manipulative. However, the opening section of the book (I wouldn’t call it a prologue as such) gives the reader the uneasy feeling that MacLeod is messing with you and that not everything is as clear as the words on the page. A book about paranoia and conspiracy making the reader unsure about its intentions is a clever book. It is also a book about how the advancement of technology and how society reacts to those changes. A new invention might change a career path or end up with you meeting the love of your life. Outside influences nudge and cajole people.

In the background to all this, MacLeod also introduces the idea of human speciation, and it fits so well into the plot, you don’t get distracted. There’s a further sub-text about revolutionaries and how they might work in the future. This is MacLeod’s skill as a writer. There are so many ideas and carefully drawn characters that you are soon lost in the story, and going with it. Garbrielle – Ryan’s fiancé who has a pivotal role to fulfil in his descent into paranoia and obsession – acts in a seemingly out of character way when the plot requires, but thinking back to when they met, you can see hints being displayed. All the plot strands; the evolution, the UFOs, the revolutionaries, the freedom and privacy issues of everything been recorded and shared, all weave together perfectly, and this despite MacLeod’s tendency to tell, not show (although it becomes evident that this is Ryan’s confessional).

It’s refreshing to read a novel where the lead protagonist is flawed and makes some bad, albeit understandable, choices. You might not like Ryan, but you can empathise with him. You might even think that the path he took might be the path you would take too, given his circumstances. There’s a lightness of touch about the writing, which might surprise the SF fan, but it fits within this work well, especially as above all, it is about the relationships in Ryan’s life.

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