The Execution Channel

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Ken MacLeod, Orbit, £17.99

The world of Ken MacLeod's The Execution Channel is a disturbingly familiar place. The flu pandemic has happened, as has the war with Iran. Omnipresent CCTV and security surveillance have destroyed civil liberties, and the "crisis" has destroyed democracy.

Sucked into instability by war, debt and "natural" disasters, the US is struggling to maintain its position as the world's lone superpower. Even its allies are reviewing their options.

Climate change has displaced millions of people, now eking out a living in Federal Emergency Management Agency camps, on the streets or as low paid factory fodder. Communist India leads the world in skills and China in manufacturing.

Britain, as ever, is placed in the precarious position of needing to ally itself with either the US or Europe. Troops are posted across the Middle East and Asia up to the Chinese border. But technological breakthrough may be about to end the stalemate.

Despite featuring MacLeod's often visited themes - near future dystopia, techno geekery and contemporary political concerns - The Execution Channel is quite a departure from the form of his nine previous books.

In an interview with SFSite MacLeod talks about what led him to write this novel in the light of other science fiction based on massive catastrophic events:

"Their catastrophes were always things that weren't likely to happen - walking plants, a wind from nowhere, giant wasps, volcanoes in Wales - instead of the catastrophe that everyone really feared. It was as if they were deliberately averting their gaze from nuclear war. That got me to the first point: to focus on what we really fear: nuclear attack, terrorism, torture."

More spy thriller than science fiction, The Execution Channel is full of the paranoia and the obsessive zealotry of security services in a world where power struggles between states obscure all else.

The story centres on James Travis, an IT engineer. His daughter, Roisin, is part of the anti-war movement, and his son, Alec, is in the army. Despite taking neither position, Travis is headhunted for French intelligence, ostensibly due to having made the statement: "I just hate the Yanks." When a nuclear explosion destroys a US controlled airbase in Scotland Roisin is witness to it as part of a peace camp outside.

The story is of the Travis family and of US conspiracy theorist and blogger Mark Dark trying to make sense of the events amid lies and disinformation.

Frequently in the wrong place at the wrong time, the characters are often surrounded by horrific violence-violence already taking place across the world today.

We've all seen reports of hooded prisoners naked, raped and terrorised in the news on a frighteningly regular basis. But most of us have seen the anti-war movement too. The movement that marched in its millions against war, and its associated racism and violence are mentioned in passing as a force too weak and ideologically divided to prevent the breakdown in society.

While politically I can't agree with many of the conclusions the author seems to hint at, what kind of dystopian vision of the future would it be if I could?

MacLeod is known for his ability to mix politics with science fiction and this is his best and most intense effort to date. It has a fast, witty and complex narrative, which keeps you turning the pages until the very end.

It may be too close for comfort, but we should be scared, we should be disturbed and therefore we should act.

The novel almost serves to prove how accurate the tag line is: "In a war on terror only terror can win."