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Descent by Ken MacLeod

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HOW FAR WOULD YOU GO FOR THE TRUTH? Ball lightning. Weather balloons. Secret military aircraft. Ryan knows all the justifications for UFO sightings. But when something falls out of the sky on the hills near his small Scottish town, he finds his cynicism can’t identify or explain the phenomenon. And in a future where nothing is a secret, where everything is recorded on CCTV or reported online, why can he find no evidence of the UFO, nor anything to shed light on what occurred? Is it the political revolutionaries, is it the government or is it aliens themselves who are creating the cover-up? Or does the very idea of a cover-up hide the biggest secret of all?
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Descent forms part of MacLeod’s move towards a more literary tradition begun with Intrusion; both focus on a white middle class in the near future, both have one particular major SFnal concept they’re built around, both are excessively concerned with the debate around the banning of smoking (indeed, the novels almost feel like excuses to write about the ban rather than anything else); and both heavily involve a paranoia about government, both the Secret State and the open one, straight out of an anarchist conspiracy theory.

Unfortunately, his character here is even more unlikeable than the hapless protagonist of Intrusion; Ryan is, by his own admission, directionless, bouncing around in his life with no real purpose in mind, and seriously self-satisfied even when talking, in retrospect, about things he calls his greatest mistakes. It’s not just those that are problems with Ryan – his lack of any actual character other than arseishness, his obsession with women, the way MacLeod is largely using him to pillory groups the author finds amusing or despicable (Ryan has traces of the New Atheists strongly in his system; “political correctness” comes in for a good bashing; and, again, there’s an obsession with smoking as cool, a mark of maturity, perfectly fine). The rest of the cast are even more like cyphers for Ryan to react to; there’s not a single actual human character in this novel, even the first-person narrator being more a collection of reactions to events than actually a being himself.

The women are even worse served than the men; society appears to have advanced significantly economically and technologically, but women and the perception of women has barely changed, with them appearing as prizes to be won and social status symbols for the men, with no real agency of their own (a male wants a female, and therefore the female wants the male; there’s no real thought as to why). That’s not to mention the racism that creeps into the portrayal of Travellers; using a whole host of the relevant stereotypes, Descent both buys into and expands on the idea of the Travellers as a weird, insular people and as a sleeper-threat to humanity in the ugliest way. Similarly, Africans are apparently the “Pure People”, because they’re genetically distinct having never breed with Neanderthals; this, of course, just emphasises the idea of physiological differences being the most important between humans, and comes up despite not a single non-white person appearing, even briefly, in the novel. While MacLeod is by no means a racist, and tries to undermine these positions even as the novel posits them, I don’t think the balancing act is successful.

The plot is equally frustrating. Descent focuses on Ryan throughout his life, leaping forward a chunk at a time, from the point when he had an abduction experience followed by a seemingly-related dream. MacLeod uses this as a sort of motivation for Ryan, either to obey the instruction given in his dream or to simply waste away his life in chasing the rabbit down the hole; the various plot strands hang more on coincidence than on an actual sensible narrative strategy, with no decisions anyone makes appearing to actually have consequences – the status quo ante litteram appears to be basically unchanged by the end of the novel, despite the fluctuations that MacLeod wants us to believe have happened. Combined with the use of conspiracy theory as both joke and plot point, you’d actually be better off reading a David Icke website for an interesting story, and you’d hear less about how awful modern liberalism is.

In the end, the biggest problem with this novel is that MacLeod got critical acclaim for Intrusion, and decided the way to top it was to write the same novel again… but more so. The result? Descent, a characterless, purposeless, plotless mess, virtually monochrome, monotonous, racist, misogyistic, and more concerned with the awesomeness of cigarettes than anything within the novel itself. If you want to read MacLeod, read the fantastic Fall Revolution books; this is just a mess.


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