#CBR4 Maneuver #17 – The Star Fraction

Target: Ken MacLeod’s The Star Fraction

Profile: Science Fiction, Political Thriller

Summary: From Goodreads.com, “Moh Kohn is a security mercenary, his smart gun and killer reflexes for hire. Janis Taine is a scientist working on memory-enhancing drugs, fleeing the US/UN’s technology cops. Jordan Brown is a teenager in the Christian enclave of Beulah City, dealing in theologically-correct software for the world’s fundamentalists-and wants out.

In a balkanized twenty-first century, where the “peace process” is deadlier than war, the US/UN’s spy satellites have everyone in their sights. But the Watchmaker has other plans, and the lives of Moh, Janis, and Jordan are part of the program. A specter is haunting the fight for space and freedom, the specter of the betrayed revolution that happened before. . . .”

After Action Report:

The Star Fraction is an extremely divisive novel.  Partly by design and partly by subject matter.   Any book that delves so deeply into the grit and grime of political and economic ideologies is going to be uncomfortable for some of its readers.  With that as a given, MacLeod goes and shoots himself in the foot by avoiding picking a side in the end, leaving leftists unfulfilled and members of the right just horribly angry.

If this review does happen to inspire you to read this, I highly encourage seeking out the American Edition of Fractions, the collected version of the first two novels in the Fall Revolution.  MacLeod added a brief but valuable forward which sets the stage for the events of the novel a little more clearly, and provides those of us who didn’t experience the communist and socialist movements, first hand, a few key pieces of insight.  It’s not completely necessary, but I wouldn’t have been able to craft this review without going over the forward again.

The story is set in a somewhat dystopic England where a series of failed revolutions, both local and abroad, brought the might of the US/UN alliance down on the world.  As a method of compromise, the US/UN balkanized the world, allowing political dissidents and idealists to create their own communes and compounds which they could rule as they saw fit within a few constraints, such as development of specified technologies and laws regarding use of standing forces.  Moh Kohn, the book’s protagonist, is a mercenary who provides security from a verity of legal terrorist groups that operate out of the communes.  The one exception to the US/UN lockdown is the city of North London Town, or Norlonto, which exists as an independent outpost of the Space Faction, who made themselves neutral arbiters of international security in the wake of World War Three.

Moh Kohn and Janis Taine find themselves on everyone’s bad side when Janis’ research runs up against the US/UN technology laws and inadvertently triggers the emergence of a Watchmaker sentient AI.  As the various active factions take advantage of the chaos to advance their own agendas, Kohn starts to realize that the revolution may not have been all it was cracked up to be.

The unsatisfying thing about The Star Fraction is that it ultimately doesn’t pick a side.  The protagonists seem to be trending left/communist for most of the book, but well before the ending salvos all but Janis seem to have abandoned their preconceptions and their causes.  MacLeod addresses some of the thoughts that got him there:

“Unfortunately, there’s no reason why the Economic Calculation Argument and the Materialist Conception of History couldn’t both be true.  What if capitalism is unstable, and socialism is impossible?  The Star Fraction is haunted by this uncomfortable question.” 

He is referring to the theories of Ludwig von Mises and Lewis Henry Morgan respectively.  Mises held that without a concept of value derived from the construct of property, trade and civilization would prove to be impossible.  Morgan drew on Marx’s works and formalized the evolution of a society that couldn’t help but grow beyond the idea of personal property.  The Star Fraction is a reaction to the perceived inevitable failure of both schools, from the viewpoint of a socialist, and as such, abandons both the Left and the Right.

Philosophy aside, the novel is dense with political references and asides.  For someone like myself, who was unfamiliar with the language and thinking of the Cold War era, the book can prove quite difficult to really get a grip on.  The main plot tends to take a backstage to the political postulating.  MacLeod also makes a MacGuffin out of a major plot point, derailing the final act and enhancing that sense of dissatisfaction.  In MacLeod’s defense, The Star Fraction was his first novel and his reputation as a top-notch author would seem to redeem this slightly false start.

I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this book to the masses.  It is strong enough to stand on its own as a piece of fiction, but without its follow-up novels in the Fall Revolution, I can’t imagine The Star Fraction occupying a place on anyone’s to-read list.  That said, anyone with an open mind and a desire to read and learn might enjoy this quirky little novel.

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Posted on June 3, 2012, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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