Ken MacLeod's The Execution Channel is a tomorrow's-headlines-today technothriller with enough ideas packed aboard to rise out of its small subcategory and into the stratosphere of speculative fiction.

The Travis family is the focus as a nuclear bomb goes off at RAF Leuchars in Scotland. James Travis has been working as a programmer for defense and energy companies and has long expected the world to go down the tubes. When his daughter, Roisin, who has been in a peace camp outside the air force base, calls him at 4:00 a.m. to tell him she saw the bomb but is unharmed, he doesn't hesitate to act on his emergency survivalist plans. Alec, Roisin's brother, is in the army in Kazakhstan, and it is he, the most uncompromised of the three, who takes the brunt of the government's investigation into his family. After bombs blow up oil refineries and freeways, the U.K. goes into defensive mode. Rumors fly around the world about who is responsible and governments make ready to go to war. In this world, where Al Gore is the U.S. president and France is at the center of geopolitical peacekeeping attempts, little else has gone differently from the last half dozen years in the real world.

MacLeod uses the Travis family, among others, to demonstrate the inhuman uses of some recent Western laws on extraordinary rendition, torture and holding terrorism suspects without trial, as well as how quickly difference can be translated into otherness. At the end of many chapters there is a list of the most recent victims on the titular execution channel, an Internet and cable TV idea that MacLeod's glib description belies the horror of and the potential for its actuality.

MacLeod keeps the action moving swiftly along, all the while throwing out red herrings amid real clues as to where the book is unexpectedly heading: into a future imaginable only in physics labs and fever-dream science fiction novels. Gavin J. Grant runs Small Beer Press in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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