The novel “Cosmonaut Keep” by Ken MacLeod was published for the first time in 2000. It’s the first book in the Engines of Light Trilogy.
Matt Cairns is a programmer who also accepts jobs that are not exactly legal, exploiting his ability to penetrate computer systems. His contacts lead him to try to penetrate the system of a space station where he discovers much more than expected and ends up involved in a story that also concerns the first contact with an alien species.
On the planet Mingulay, human beings live together with saurs and kraken, on which they have to rely for interstellar travel. Gregor Cairns is part of a family that would like to discover the secrets needed to build their own interstellar starships, but this requires not only to solve a series of technical problems but also to avoid causing the gods’ wrath.
In this opening book of the Engines of Light Trilogy, Ken MacLeod begins two subplots set about two centuries apart that are initially completely separated and at some point their developments begin to show how the near future led to the farthest one. The subplot in the near future is set in an alternative world in which the USSR conquered Western Europe establishing a mild communist regime that seems to be accepted by the majority of citizens with no questions.
Above all in the subplot set in the near future, the political element is very important but it’s the one that causes me the greatest problems. I can’t take seriously the Europe depicted by Ken MacLeod, perhaps for the hatred for communism developed during a life lived on the border with the – now former – Yugoslavia. Moreover, that subplot is based on an contrast between Europe and the USA, as if the USSR after having conquered Western Europe lost its importance and the other nations were irrelevant. This is science fiction but I really find it hard to suspend my disbelief.
Paradoxically, after somehow simplifying the world situation, Ken MacLeod develops what remains in a sophisticated way, adding factions in both sides with various ideological nuances. Characters with various ideas and opinions appear in the course of the novel, although they tend to be used only to represent those positions, without a real development.
Matt Cairns’ story includes a number of technical details that are likely to be difficult for people with limited knowledge in the field of computer science and may instead be appreciated by experts. The part I found far more interesting in the subplot set in the near future is the one concerning the first contact with an alien species. It’s connected to the other subplot, where Ken MacLeod slowly provides some interesting information on saurs and kraken, starting from their origins to understand who are the gods that are occasionally mentioned.
Readers need to pay attention to the details included in “Cosmonaut Keep” because they create the foundations for this ucronia with the next centuries of history of humanity and its relationship with other species. The continuous shift, even sudden, from one subplot to another can create confusion and the initial part of the novel is slow paced due to the need to introduce at least some of the many elements of the novel.
“Cosmonaut Keep” can be a frustrating reading and not just for the heavy political part. There are various events with lots of romantic interludes in both subplots, but in the one set on planet Mingulay they go up to a certain point, without a real conclusion. This is clearly only the first book in a series so if you’re interested in its themes you still have to get its sequels as well.