REVIEW : Descent by Ken MacLeod

Strangely enough, first time I saw the cover art for Descent I've never made connection with alien abductions. However, that is exactly what Ken MacLeod's new novel is superficially about. However, Ken, being an imaginative writer as he is, doesn't approach the subject half-heartedly and manages to give it a refreshing spin even though the conspiracy stories have been done to death by others.

Ken sets his story in the near-future Scotland at an unspecified time but one with a strong dystopian feeling. Technology is similar to ours but the again wonderfully not. At the beginning we are introduced to Ryan Sinclair, a bona-fide conspiracy expert, who after experiencing a strange phenomenon with his schoolfriend Calum discovers that there's something more to UFO sightings than the usual military cover-ups. Originally discounting the whole experience what follows is even stranger - he has an abduction dream featuring "bog-standard Grey" aliens who make him masturbate. While Calum soon moves on with his life, these events have a significant influence on the rest of Ryan's life. Soon Ryan must wade through tons of real and invented conspiracies to find the truth while trying to live an ordinary life and not be labeled as just another nutcase by his girlfriend Gabrielle.

The world Ryan lives in is never completely revealed and we're expected to connect the dots by using few tidbits thrown our way. As the Ryan's life finally starts unraveling in front of us in all its glorious strangeness, it becomes clear that Ken has pulled a fast one on us. In fact, this is not a novel about alien abductions but about the mystery of Ryan and his fall into confusion. Hence, the descent. As such, Descent is very character driven and anyone looking for an action UFO thriller will be sorely disappointed. This is more like an off-beat coming of age tale for blokes than an X-Files offshoot.

Reading Ken MacLeod's new novel is always a treat and to me, Descent felt like a spiritual sequel to his previous novel Intrusion. Once again, Ken has provided a knowledgeable, if a little bit, paranoid view of our all-too-possible near future. Now, in a recent article he wrote for us, Ken mentioned that his next novel might be one having a spaceship on the cover but personally I wouldn't mind if he continued producing stuff in Descent's vein. His recent output has been extremely thought provoking, enjoyable to read and far superior to his early more spacey stuff. In my opinion he's one of the few contemporary authors who continuously manages to sound as clever as possible without ever being boring and as such Descent is a perfect example why I love his work so much.  

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Review copy provided by Orbit Books.

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