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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
British author Ken MacLeod finally arrives on U.S. shores with The Cassini Division, a novel full of deeply insightful speculation and super spy-type action, all with a dark and fantastical edge to it. MacLeod toys with the conventions of the crime thriller and hard science fiction to brew the kind of tale authors like K. W. Jeter and Michael Marshall Smith have been making more and more popular over the last several years. Setting the pace and tone for a new kind of enriching blend, MacLeod's work proves to be an engaging and electrifying mix of old-fashioned adventure merged with politico-speculative fiction. The Cassini Division is an offbeat but informative novel that shows a provocative understanding of left-wing politics, anarchist beliefs, and nouveau techno-hip extrapolation.
After suffering several great setbacks in the early 21st century, including plagues, the fall of capitalism, and a virus that makes computers and communication ineffectual, Earth has waded through its recent dark age. Breakthroughs in medicine have given humanity much greater longevity and, although the alien computer virus has destroyed most of our common technology, new devices and implements seem to be on the horizon. Anarchy more or less rules the planet, and even though the "Union" does have its rules that everyone must provide for the common good, such policies are easily broken or overlooked. Ellen May Ngewthu is a soldier of the Cassini Division, an elite space-going defense force that does its best to fight the Outwarders, or "Fast Folk." The Outwarders are a group ofsuperhumancomputer geeks who've somehow "downloaded" themselves to a much faster evolutionary scale, and who now live within the envelope of Jupiter as godlike entities.
Ellen travels to Earth in order to convince Jon Wilde, a clone with the memories of a long-dead man who spent time beyond the Malley wormhole, to join in her efforts to put an end to the Outwarder threat. Failing that, she attempts to earn the trust of Dr. Isambard Kingdom Malley himself, so that he might help her travel beyond the wormhole to a colony on New Mars. With her smart-matter clothing that can reshape itself from a spacesuit to a monkey to an evening gown, she encounters a village of nonconformists who still practice capitalism; this group does its best to stop her from taking Malley. Ultimately, the question falls as to whether the Outwarders are actually enemies or are merely doing what they think is best for Earth. Will the Cassini Division, the self-appointed last guard of planet Earth, attempt communication or are they paranoid enough to simply implement their bizarre plan to destroy the so-called Fast Folk?
Ellen's adventures are a fascinating mixture of outright action and philosophical quandaries, as all primary characters make a stand for their own political views. The author is fair in his portrayal of the many different factions, and his even-keeled approach to the story line keeps the novel perfectly balanced between humanity's courage, paranoia, and belief in intrinsic human rights. MacLeod embraces dramatic tension from several sources, whether personal conflict, political attitude, or a soldier's stance on a moral dilemma.
The provocative nature of MacLeod's work is that each of his protagonists believes him- or herself to be in a position of moral certitude over the others, when in fact they are all merely struggling to get along. Keen sociological observations are notable here, made even more impressive because the energy level of MacLeod's prose is kept constantly full-throttle for the maximum effect. The reader can't help but become drawn into an intricate series of enthralling scenes and their ever-present political foundation, as well as the thoughtful contemplation of our social setting and the need to be held responsible for our actions no matter what the circumstances.