Cosmonaut Keep sees Ken MacLeod having a crack at writing a bona fide big space opera. Perhaps he and Peter F Hamilton got drunk at a Con somewhere, things got a bit heated and Pete called Ken out for a 'big space opera' duel: Alastair Reynolds would be egging them on the side, Iain Banks nodding with pride nearby, and the ghost of Isaac Asimov tutting somewhere above him at the lack of discipline these youngsters show...
Pow! MacLeod can't help showing his background with a very large castle on a far, far distant world in the first chapter - and a near-future Edinburgh in the second.
Crack! A huge alien spaceship arrives!
Oof! The Russians run Europe!
Thud! The huge alien spaceship run by giant super-intelligent squid carries almost-parasitic human mercantile families between otherwise isolated worlds!
All right, that's enough of that.
Cosmonaut Keep has two alternating narrative strands that it very soon becomes obvious will somehow, incredibly, join up. That one (as I mentioned) is set in a near-future neo-Soviet Edinburgh, and the other on an almost pastoral human colony sometime in the future makes this something of a feat.
MacLeod releases facts and background very begrudgingly throughout the book - no infodumping here - but it's worked out well enough to keep you turning pages without becoming too frustrated about just what exactly is going on. Just as you're about to metaphorically asphyxiate from lack of exposition he gives you another lungful to tide you over for another chapter.
Unfortunately the characters work less well, falling in and out of love as if they are 15-year-olds (they're not). Matt (the main character in Edinburgh)'s adaptation to some pretty damn stunning space travel seems far too smooth. This is a man who's never even been into orbit before, and he's unfeasibly calm and blasé about becoming, first an international fugitive, and then an astronaut (yes, and a cosmonaut) and finally… well, I won't spoil it for you.
With MacLeod's trademark political/philosophical sophistication watered down as it is here I felt I was being hurried through the book on a moving walkway when what I really wanted was to stop and check out some of the scenery. Cosmonaut Keep could and should be a lot thicker, particularly as the jumping-off point for a big space opera epic like this.
David Brin's excellent Uplift series sprang to mind in comparison to Engines of Light, but Brin's books are all behemoths by comparison and the number of books in that series was always, as I recall, set to top double figures. A little bit more space (say, another hundred pages) wouldn't have done Cosmonaut Keep any harm at all. Hopefully this is because MacLeod has a lot of stuff to get through and so is employing brevity in places where we might otherwise expect some depth simply in order to get to the important stuff.
At the end of the day, this is Ken MacLeod we're talking about here, and I'm quite prepared to indulge him with the benefit of the doubt in a way I wouldn't have done if this was a first-novel newcomer.
I enjoyed Cosmonaut Keep; it's broad in scope, brash and fun, but it didn't take long to read and it didn't stick in my mind in the way his earlier books have always managed to do before.
Buy it from Amazon.co.uk