Revolution on a Galactic Scale

Issue section: 

Review of 'Dark Light', Ken Mcleod, Orbit £16.99

Dark Light' is the second instalment in Ken Macleod's science fiction space opera, 'Engines of Light'. Ken Macleod is one of a handful of contemporary left-wing authors--others being China Miéville, Iain M Banks, Marge Piercy and Ursula LeGuin--who have shown the power of this genre to explore alternative histories and imagined futures.

Some may mourn the relative dearth of Trotskyist in-jokes in this novel (compared to, for instance, the shameless plugging of Tony Cliff's biography of Trotsky in 'Cosmonaut Keep'--the first book in the series) but this has made room for a more serious penetration of materialist politics into the structure of the plot. Put simply, this is Trotsky's theories of combined and uneven development and of permanent revolution played out on a galactic scale.

The interaction between the two civilisations on the planet of Croatan is brought to prominence--on the one hand, the sprawling, technologically advanced city of Rawliston, populated by species brought to Croatan by 'gods' with mysterious motives; on the other, the more rudimentary aboriginal 'sky people'. The focus on sleek Promethean technologies in 'Cosmonaut Keep' gives way to more anthropological concerns. Of particular interest is the character of Stone, a male of the 'sky people' who has crossed genders to live as a woman because he is unwilling to take part in what he has judged to be a barbaric initiation ceremony.

As in 'Cosmonaut Keep', in which people are baptised into a religion based on the ancient materialists such as Epicurus, Macleod demonstrates how ideologies are conditioned and shaped by history. The transportation of people to Croatan by the gods before they could develop the technologies to do so themselves has had anomalous effects: pre-Copernican astronomy persists in Rawliston, Christianity is now a language, and every year--on 'Dawson's Night'--bonfires are lit to celebrate the burning of a Christian heretic who taught the sky people they need not give up their indigenous religion.

However, an extra layer of sophistication is overlaid onto this social tension by the presence on the planet of interstellar traders, colonialists, adventurers, revolutionaries and immortals--all with their own agendas. When a democratic revolt against the mercantile Port Authority breaks out in the city, and popular assemblies begin to be held in the streets, the logic of revolution is played out.

The 'Stalinist' cosmonaut Volkov--an immortal apparatchik from the Communist Party of the European Union back on earth--argues for a cross-class alliance of 'progressive' forces in a cynical manoeuvre designed to further his own wider interests, which will produce a free trade capitalism destined to expand into and wipe out the aboriginal culture. It is left to others to fight for the revolution in a way which will not produce war with the indigenous people and, for that matter, with the gods.

It is not necessary to have read the first book in the series to understand this novel, but, if the idea of Trotskyist politics intermingled with dope-smoking lizards, anti-gravity and the odd accidental deicide appeals, then this is a book for you.