Map of Blue Book Balloon

25 November 2021

#Review - Beyond the Hallowed Sky by Ken MacLeod

Design by Duncan Spilling

Beyond the Hallowed Sky (Lightspeed Trilogy, 1)
Ken MacLeod
Orbit, 25 November 2021
Available as: PB, 336pp, audio, e
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356514796   

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Beyond the Hallowed Sky to consider for review.

Ken MacLeod is an absolute master of near future SF thrillers that intelligently reflect politics and society as well as science. So Beyond the Hallowed Sky is securely rooted in a not so far off* Scotland, part of a multi-nation Union that has undergone revolutionary transformation but in a low key way (the 'Cold Revolution'). It's set against the Alliance, an array of anglo powers who have recently restored democracy, and Co-ord (China and Russia). 

There's a lot of stuff about defections from one to the other (which seem fairly easy) and a glimpsed history that involves some nuclear exchanges, though I don't think all out war. But many here, including one of the main protagonists, John Grant, aren't keen on recalling history too much, either what they did (Grant is a responsible, a key figure in the Revolution) or what happened more widely. Macleod rather brilliantly portrays this future society through small details and hints, not outright description, so making it more of a living and breathing thing that if there were lengthy passages setting out what had happened or how things are structured.

A central theme of the story is, I think, one of technological change and transformation: what becomes of this world when a crazy, impossible idea - faster-than-light travel - turns out to be attainable (and actually, rather easy to realise). Evoking such upheavals as the launch of Sputnik-1 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, MacLeod shows how such an event - despite not having a direct impact, or much impact at all, on the ordinary lives of many people, might still play with the psychic moorings of a society, its sense of worth and purpose. He has I think further shocks in store for the folk of the 2070s because in another thread of the narrative we see attempts to come to terms with a truly alien sort of alien, one which seems intimately linked to our planet and its history and to be capable of great harm.

The way that this book brings together great themes - Space exploration! Aliens! FTL! - with the little details of individual lives - a boy and a girl meeting while out hiking, a trip on a ferry that will change lives, an evening spent in a bar listening to traditional music, the rhythms of life in a workplace - was for me one of its strengths. I enjoyed that this isn't for the most part "zappy" SF, although MacLeod shows himself more than capable of that when the story calls for it, as it does in the final quarter, when some concepts arise that - if I could name them here which I can't because of spoilers - would seem absurd in cold pixels. In context, however, and arising from the very ordinariness of much of the earlier story, they just makes sense and work.

Another theme, which is worth looking out for because it's so well integrated and embedded that it almost seems a matter of course, concerns the place of AI in these future societies. In Beyond the Hallowed Sky, it shows up incarnated in a sort of super-Siri virtual assistant available always and everywhere and charged with meeting needs before they're stated (the kind of thing I think that visionaries might hope could replace the action of markets?)  It also figures embodied in robots, given a remarkable amount of latitude, you might think, and there are some intriguing conversations about consciousness, conscience and freedom here which perhaps aren't quite so integrated into the narrative but were thought-provoking.

All that may make Beyond the Hallowed Sky sound over-ideasy, perhaps, but that would completely wrong. I love ideas in a book but more I love believable, quirky characters, especially the bad guys, an active and twisty plot, and being kept guessing about where everything bis going. And Beyond the Hallowed Sky scores very well on all that, and more, as well as being an engaging and complex opening to a trilogy whose subsequent volumes I'm already looking forward to reading.

To read more about Beyond the Hallowed Sky, see the publisher's website here.


*If I live to be 100 I'll be contemporary with the events of this book.

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