Friday, 4 April 2014

Book Review | Descent by Ken MacLeod

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?


The truth is out there, somewhere. But pinning it down can be pretty tricky.

In "an iffy skiffy future like none I would or could have imagined in my teens," (p.7) Scotland is independent, airships ride high in the sky, everyone wears capture glasses, and the poke bonnet has come back into fashion. Ridiculous, right? But that's reality, for Ryan—a teenage boy at the beginning of Ken MacLeod's new book whose coming of age over its conspiratorial course is dictated by the close encounter he has in the company of his neanderthal pal Calum.

It's not as if they set out to see something weird—they're just bored boys who decide one day, mid revision, to hike up a hill—but "that's how it always begins," isn't it? "You wanted a walk. It was a wet afternoon and you fancied a drive. The night was vile and you were minded to check on the cow." (p.14) And then the aliens came!

Actually, scratch that. The aliens come a little later. What happens on the hill, where Calum and Ryan are waiting out weather that's taken a turn for the terrible, is unusual, sure, but the "silvery sphere" (p.20) that appears may be no more than a drone, and the blinding white which knocks both boys unconscious for hours afterwards could be ball lightning... right?

They pair are understandably shaken by their shared experience, but whilst Calum learns to live with it, Ryan takes somewhat longer to move on—not least because of his dreams that evening. He is "terrified, but not surprised," to be visited by something other. "The creature was a cliche, your average working alien, a bog-standard Grey. About four and a half feet tall, with a bit oval head, skinny torso, spindly limbs, a ditto of nostrils and a lipless little em-dash of a mouth." (p.44) It transports him to its mothership, where a handsome pair of alien assistants impart some familiar words of wisdom before making our man-in-the-making masturbate and sending said back to bed.

In the aftermath of his unsurprising abduction Ryan rationalises:
What I was experiencing, then, was a classic falling-asleep hallucination along with sleep paralysis, its content pathetically predictable from conscious and unconscious worrying about my strange encounter, and the associated images of UFOs and aliens with which my mind was as well stocked as anyone's. I knew, from my sceptical reading, that artificial electrical stimulation of the brain could induce bizarre mental states. I knew of the speculations that some baffling UFO encounters could be accounted for by some poorly understood natural phenomenon which could induce experiences interpreted as alien communication or abduction. (p.45)
Intellectually, he insists on this, but in the moment, the dream feels completely real—and as time wears on, as it's wont to, Ryan becomes increasingly convinced that somewhere out there an alien may be having his baby. In the interim, his gathering paranoia is exacerbated by the repeat appearance of an apparent Man in Black posing as a minister with an interest in the end times.

Descent is essentially Ken MacLeod's attempt to illuminate a collection of conspiracy theories including, but not limited to, alien abduction, government cover-up, secret speciation and the potentially impending perils of privatisation. Like Ryan, he seems to be "searching for [...] anything that will serve as explanation, as exculpation, as excuse" (p.9) for the many and various accounts out there, and to his credit, MacLeod manages to present a reasonably coherent thesis here—albeit one that depends upon the technology of tomorrow, largely excluding it from application today.

Though these supernatural elements are front and centre, Descent is also a pleasantly reminiscent of the best bloke-lit. Like a near-future Nick Hornby novel with Men in Black as opposed to music, it can be read, as the author himself has said, as "a first-person, confessional tale of an ordinary guy who behaves with typical male insensitivity and self-absorption until at least one exasperated woman-in-his-life knocks him about the head with some home truths." It just so happens that "in Descent the narrator's excuse for being such a dick is that in his teens he got knocked on the head by a flying saucer."

In both senses—as a skiffy conspiracy thriller and an approachable coming-of-age confessional—Descent is a success in large part thanks to its fittingly conflicted central character. Ryan is level-headed enough at the outset that I didn't find if difficult to forgive him for going off the reservation later, particularly given how embarrassed he is by his belief in aliens and the like; he knows he should know better, basically. He's flawed in other ways as well, but MacLeod renders Ryan so exceptionally that readers will root for him to come good rather than hope to see him suffer for the sometimes disgusting things he does in service of his obsession.

The novel's narrative is nominal in comparison to its perfectly-put protagonist, but the modest plot rattles along regardless, building deliberately yet delicately towards the moment when everything comes together in the harsh light of the first flight of an ambitious but ultimately rubbish Scottish rocket. Set pieces, then, bookend the text, but the bulk of what's between these is markedly less elaborate; of significance solely because MacLeod has managed to make us care about Ryan.

To be sure, this could become tedious given time, but at no point is Descent in danger of wearing out its welcome, except in the eyes of those expecting endless spectacle. That's simply not what this text trades in. Instead, it's a reasonably sweet story about a boy becoming a man—and all the realisations that transition requires—which doubles as exploration of a subject that contemporary science fiction seems to have lost interest in.

"I understand the fascination myself," as Ryan's eventual nemesis asserts. "Even if there's nothing there, there's so much there, so to speak. Psychology, perception, meteorology, astronomy—ufology can be quite educational if you approach it in the right way," (p.369) which is to say with a healthy measure of scepticism, as Ken MacLeod documents in Descent to mesmerising effect.


by Ken MacLeod

UK Publication: March 2014, Orbit

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