The Concluding Volume of the Engines of Light
With Cosmonaut Keep and Dark Light, both finalists for science fiction's Hugo Award, Ken MacLeod launched a new interstellar epic with all the engaging characters and ingenious SF inventiveness of his earlier Fall Revolution novels. Now MacLeod delivers the culmination of his epic of a human future crammed with innumerable varieties of intelligent alien life, and in which humans find themselves involved in the politics of aliens as powerful and inscrutable as gods...and entangled in their wars.
For ten thousand years, Nova Babylonia has been the greatest city of the Second Sphere, an interstellar civilization of human and other beings who have been secretly removed, throughout history, from Earth.
Now humans from the far reaches of the Sphere have come to offer immortality—and to urge them to build defenses against the alien invasion they know is coming.
As humans and aliens compete and conspire, the wheels of history will lathe all the players into shapes new and surprising. The alien invasion will reach New Babylon at last—led by the most alien figure of all.
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About the Author
Ken MacLeod holds a degree in zoology and has worked in the fields of biomechanics and computer programming. His first two novels, The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal, each won the Prometheus Award; The Cassini Division was a finalist for the Nebula Award; and The Sky Road won the British Science Fiction Association Award and was a finalist for the Hugo Award, as were his next two novels, Cosmonaut Keep and Dark Light. Ken MacLeod lives near Edinburgh, Scotland, with his wife and children.
Ken MacLeod is the multiple award-winning author of many science fiction novels, including the Fall Revolution quartet, the Engines of Light trilogy (Cosmonaut Keep, Dark Light, and Engine City), and several stand-alone novels including Newton’s Wake, Learning the World, and The Restoration Game. Born on the Scottish isle of Skye, he lives in Edinburgh.
Read an Excerpt
By Ken MacLeod
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2003 Ken MacLeod
All rights reserved.
The Advancement of Learning
THE JUMP is instantaneous. To a photon, the whole history of the universe may be like this: over in a flash, before it's had time to blink. To a human, it's disorienting. One moment, you're an hour out from the last planet you visited — then, without transition, you're an hour away from the next.
Volkov spent the first of these hours preparing for his arrival, conscious that he would have no time to do so in the second.
My name is Grigory Andreievich Volkov. I am two hundred and forty years old, I was born about a hundred thousand years ago, and as many light-years away: Kharkov, Russian Federation, Earth, in the year 2018. As a young conscript, I fought in the Ural Caspian Oil War. I was with the first troops to enter Marseilles and to bathe their sore feet in the waters of the Mediterranean. In 2040, I became a cosmonaut of the European Union, and three years later made the first human landing on the surface of Venus. In 2046 I volunteered for work on the space station Marshal Titov, which in 2049 was renamed the Bright Star. It became the first human-controlled starship. In it I traveled to the Second Sphere. For the past two centuries I have lived on Mingulay and Croatan.
This is my first visit to Nova Terra. I hope to bring you ...
What? The secret of immortality?
Yes. The secret of immortality. That would do.
Strictly speaking, what he hoped to bring was the secret of longevity. But he had formed an impression of the way science was conducted on Nova Terra: secular priestcraft, enlightened obscurantism; alchemy, philosophy, scholia. A trickle of inquiry after immortality had exhausted hedge-magic, expanded herbalism, lengthened little but grey beards and the index of the Pharmacopia, and remained respectable. Volkov expected to be introduced to the Academy as a prodigy. Before the shavingmirror, he polished his speech and rehearsed his Trade Latin.
The suds and stubble swirled away. He slapped a stinging cologne on his cheeks, gave himself an encouraging smile, and stepped out of the cramped washroom. The ship's human quarters were sparse and provisional. In an emergency, or at the owners' convenience, they could be flooded. In normal operation, it was usual to travel in one or other of the skiffs, which at this moment were racked on the vast curving sides of the forward chamber like giant silver platters. The air smelled of paint and seawater; open channels and pools divided the floor, and on the walls enormous transparent pipes contained columns of water that rose or fell, functioning as lifts for the ship's crew. Few humans, and fewer saurs, were about in the chamber. Volkov strolled along a walkway. At its end, a low rail enclosed the pool of the navigator. Eyes the size of beach balls reflected racing bands of color from the navigator's chromatophores and the surrounding instrumentation. Wavelets from the rippling mantle perturbed the water. Lashing tentacles broke the surface as they played over the controls.
Volkov was halfway up the ladder to the skiff in which he had spent most, and intended to spend the rest, of the brief journey, when the lightspeed jump took place. The sensation was so swift and subtle that it did not endanger his step or grasp. He was aware that it had happened, that was all. In a moment of idle curiosity — for he'd never been within sight of a ship's controller at such a moment — he glanced sideways and down, to the watery cockpit twenty-odd meters below.
The navigator floated in the middle of the pool. His body had turned an almost translucent white. Volkov was perturbed, but could think of nothing better to do than scramble faster up the ladder to the skiff.
The door opened and he stepped inside, rejoining his hosts. Esias de Tenebre stood staring at the display panel, as though he could read the racing glyphs that to Volkov meant nothing. Feet well apart, hands in his trouser pockets, his stout and muscular frame bulked further by his heavy sweater, his shock of hair spilling from under his seaman's cap. Though in the roughduty clothes that merchants traditionally wore on board ship, he had all the stocky and cocky dignity of Holbein's Henry — one who did not kill his wives, all three of whom stood beside him. Lydia, the daughter of Esias and Faustina, lounged on the circular seat around the central engine fairing behind her parents, returning Volkov's appeasing look with sullen lack of interest. Black hair you could swim in, brown eyes you could drown in, golden skin you could bask in. Her oversized sweater and baggy canvas trousers only added to her charm. The other occupant of the vehicle was its pilot, Voronar, who sat leaning forward past Esias.
"What's going on?"
The saur's elliptical eyes spared Volkov a glance, then returned to the display.
"Nothing out of the ordinary," said Voronar. His large head, which lent his slender reptilian body an almost infantile proportion, tipped forward, then nodded. "We are an hour away from Nova Terra."
"Could you possibly show us the view?" said Esias.
"Your pardon," said Voronar.
He palmed the controls, and the entire surrounding wall of the skiff became pseudotransparent, patching data from the ship's external sensors and automatically adjusting brightness and contrast: Nova Sol's glare was turned down, the crescent of Nova Terra muted to a cool blue, its night side enhanced. Scattered clusters of crowded lights pricked the dark like pleiads.
"That's a lot of cities," Volkov said.
Compared with anywhere else he'd seen in the Second Sphere, if not with the Earth he remembered, it was.
"There's only one that matters," said Esias. He did not need to point it out.
Nova Babylonia was the jewel of the Second Sphere. Its millennia-old culture, and its younger but still ancient republican institutions, made it peacefully hegemonic on Nova Terra, and beyond. The temperate zones of Nova Terra's continents were placid parks, where even wildernesses were carefully planned landscape features. All classes of its people were content. Academicians and artists assimilated the latest ideas and styles that trickled in over the millennia from Earth; patricians and politicians debated cordially and congratulated themselves on their fortune in knowing, and avoiding, the home world's terrible mistakes. Merchants traded the rare goods of many worlds. Artisans and laborers enjoyed the advantages of a division of labor far wider than any the human species could have sustained on its own. Emigration was free, but the proportion of emigrants insignificant. The hominidae cheerfully tended and harvested the sources of raw materials, and the saurs and krakens exchanged their advanced products and services for those of human industry and craft. As an older and wiser species, the saurs were consulted to settle disputes, and as a more powerful species, they intervened to prevent any from getting out of hand.
The lights of Nova Babylonia shone just short of the terminator, and somewhat to the north of the halfway point between the pole and the equator. Genea, the continent on whose eastern shore the city stood, sprawled diagonally across the present night side of the planet and southward into the day and the southern hemisphere. Its ragged coastline counterpointed that of the other major continent, Sauria, a couple of thousand kilometers west: the two looked as though they had been pulled apart and displaced, one northward, the other south. Much of the southern and western part of Sauria was wrapped out of sight around the other side of the planet, at this moment; in the visible part, even at this distance, the rectangular regularity of some of its green patches distinguished manufacturing plant from jungle and plain.
"Do any humans live in Sauria?" Volkov asked.
Esias shrugged. "A few thousand, maybe, at any one time. Short-term contract employees, traders, people involved in travel infrastructure and big-game hunting. Likewise with saurs in Genea — lots of individuals, no real communities, except around the hospitals and health services."
Hospitals and health services, yes, Volkov thought, that could be a problem.
"What about the other hominidae?"
"Ah, that's a more usual distribution, except that they have entire cities of their own." Esias pointed; it wasn't much help. "Gigants here, pithkies there. Forests and mines, even some farming. More of a surprise than the cities, that; it's only developed in the last few centuries. They've always been herding, of course."
As the ship's approach zoomed the view, the city and its surroundings expanded and sharpened. The immediate vicinity and hinterland of the city was a long, triangular promontory, about a thousand kilometers from northwest to southeast and five hundred across at its widest extent. It looked like a smaller and narrower India: an island that had rammed the continent at an angle. Very likely it was — the ice of a spectacular and recent mountain range glittered white across the join. The west coast of this mini subcontinent was separated from the mainland of Genea by a semicircular sea, three hundred kilometers across at its widest, its shore curving to almost meet the end of the promontory just south of the metropolis. From the mountains sprang a dozen or so rivers whose confluence channeled about halfway down to one major river, which flowed into the sea near the tapered tip. The central, and oldest, part of Nova Babylonia was on an island about ten kilometers long that looked wedged in that river's mouth.
The city drifted off center in the view, then swung out of sight entirely as the ship leveled up for its run into the atmosphere. Why the great starships approached on what resembled a long, shallow glide path was unknown, and certainly unnecessary, but it was what they always did. The air reddened around the ship's field and, following another unnecessary and invariable habit, its human passengers returned to their seats.
Volkov leaned on the rail of the open sea-level deck of the starship and gasped morning-cool fresh air. The starship had, to the best of his knowledge, no air-recycling or air-circulating mechanisms whatsoever, and after a couple of hours even its vast volume of air grew slightly but noticeably stale. Around him, unregarded, the ship's unlading went on, bales into boats and sometimes into skiffs. The machinery that he had imported from Mingulay and Croatan — marine engines and diving equipment, mostly — would be a small fraction of the de Tenebres' cargo, and that itself insignificant beside the wares of the ship's real owners and major traders, the krakens. Beneath him, the ship's field pressed down like an invisible, flexible sheet on the waves, flattening them to a waterbed wobble. Under that rippling glassy surface, the krakens from the ship and from the local sea flashed greetings to each other. Off to Volkov's right, behind the bulk of the ship, the sun was just up, its low full beam picking out the city, about a mile away across the water, in rectangles of white glare and long triangles of black shade. Ten thousand years of heaping one stone upon another had stacked the architectures of antiquity to the heights of modernity. A marble Manhattan, massive yet soaring, it looked like something from the mind of a Speer with humanity, or a Stalin with taste. The avenues that slotted the island metropolis from east to west were so broad that Volkov could see the sky on the far side through the one directly opposite him. Bridges, sturdy as ribs, joined both shores to districts that stood, less grand only by contrast, on either bank.
Starships by the score dotted the broad estuary. Skiffs flitted back and forth between the sound and the city like Frisbees in a park. Long-limbed mammals like flying squirrels — this world's equivalent of birds — skimmed the waves and dived for fish and haunted the wakes of fishing boats in raucous flocks. Above the city, airships and gliders drifted, outpaced and dodged by the flashing skiffs. Between the starships, tall junks and clippers tacked in or out of the harbor and both branches of the river, and among them feluccas darted, their sails like the fins of a shoal of sharks. At this distance, the city's dawn din of millions of wheels and feet rose in a discernible and gradually increasing hum.
For a moment the immensity and solidity of the place made Volkov's heart sink. The stone crescendo that rose before his face was like some gigantic ship against whose bow history itself cleaved and fell back to slip along its flanks and leave a wake of churned millennia. And yet ultimately it was only an idea that kept it afloat and forging forward, a thought in millions of all-too- fragile skulls. Let them lose that thought, and in a year, the place would sink. Volkov had set himself the harder task of raising it, and at that, he felt weak.
He heard and smelt Lydia behind him, and turned as she stepped up to the rail. She gazed hungrily at the city, transfixed.
"Gods above," she said, "it's good to see it again." She smiled at him wryly. "And good to see it hasn't changed much." Another, more considering, look at the city. "Except it's higher."
"It's impressive," Volkov allowed.
"And you want to change it."
Volkov jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the work being done behind them. "You're the revolutionaries," he said. "Bring in enough books and ideas, and the city will change itself. All I want to do is make sure it's still there the next time you come back."
He grinned at her, controlling his features. His heart was making him shake inside. "If I believed in your people's ideas of courtship, I would offer it for your hand. I would tell Esias that I could take this city and lay it at your feet."
Lydia, to his surprise, blushed and blinked. "That's what Esias is afraid of," she said.
She stared away, as though weighing the city, and the suggestion.
"Gregor offered more," she added, "and he delivered it, too, but he didn't want me after all. No, I'm not open to that kind of offer. Not after that."
"I see," said Volkov. "I'll just have to fall back on my fine physique and engaging personality."
Lydia laughed. "I can never tell if you're joking or not."
"Neither can I," said Volkov in a gloomy tone.
She punched him lightly. "There you go again."
He turned to her, with a smile to cover his confusion, and even more to cover his calculation. He did not know how he felt, or what if anything his feelings meant. A few weeks earlier, his affair with Lydia's mother, Faustina, had come to a mutually agreeable end. He got on best with women of his own apparent age, or older; preferably married, or otherwise unlikely to form a permanent — and from his point of view, all too temporary — attachment. He wasn't in love with Lydia, or even infatuated with her. He didn't think about her all the time. But whenever he saw her, he felt an electric jolt inside him, and he found it difficult to look away from her. It was embarrassing to find himself stealing glances like some besotted youth, but there it was.
At the other end of the scale, almost balancing that, there was the knowledge that in terms of Nova Babylonian — and Trader — custom, they were potentially good partners. Marriage was a business, affairs an avowed diversion; issue, inheritance, and fortune the only serious matters, over which geneticists and astrologers and matchmakers kept themselves profitably occupied.
In between, at the balance point, he and Lydia had developed a sort of tempestuous friendship, which every so often blew up in clashes in which his values and ideas appeared to her as a jaded cynicism, and her passionately held ethics to him seemed ancient prejudices, immaturely held. At the moment, their relationship was going through one of its calmer patches. He didn't know whether a squall would have been better. More bracing, certainly; but there was no need to bring it on. It would come of itself soon enough.
"Can we at least be friendly, for the moment?"
She smiled back. "You may be sly, Grigory Andreievich, but I do like you. Sometimes."
The first skiff slid out of its slot in the rack and skimmed across the navigation pool and out of one of the ship's side openings. It soared to an altitude of a couple of hundred meters and flew into the city, the other skiffs carrying the rest of the clan and the crew following one by one at intervals of about half a minute. Voronar took his time, evidently enjoying showing off to Volkov the city's towers and his own skill in flying between them. From above, the city looked astonishingly green. Trees lined the streets, and stories rose in steps like terraces, many of which supported grass and gardens: the hanging gardens of Nova Babylonia, a wonder greater than their ancient original. Monkeys scrambled and swung on long vines and branches; goats grazed the lofty lawns and capered up or down external stairways; flying squirrels, their fur bright and various as the feathers of parakeets, flashed across the artificial canyons.
Excerpted from Engine City by Ken MacLeod. Copyright © 2003 Ken MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: States of Mind,
1 - The Very City Babylon,
1 - The Advancement of Learning,
2 - Hardy Man,
3 - RTFM,
4 - The Modern Prince,
5 - Tidal Race,
6 - Bright Star Cultures,
7 - The Modern Regime,
2 - The Human as Alien,
8 - New Earth (Political),
9 - The Hanging Libraries,
10 - High Strangeness Incidents,
11 - Lithomancer,
12 - Rocket Science,
13 - Blood of Spiders,
14 - The New Moon's Arms,
Tor Books by Ken MacLeod,
Coda: State of Play,