I’m not going to lie: I was excited to review Ken MacLeod’s latest novel. I’ve long been a fan of MacLeod’s work and, to my delight, my short story appeared alongside his in last summer’s inaugural issue of ParSec magazine. Yet my pre-review excitement was tinged with anxiety. After all, when writing reviews there’s little worse than hotly anticipating a favourite writer’s latest work only to discover said work is a cold, lacklustre mess. It wouldn’t be the first time. So I began Beyond the Hallowed Sky—the first in an all-new trilogy—with some trepidation. Maybe it’s the result of growing up as a weird queer kid, but I like to prepare for the worst.
The most important thing you should know about Beyond the Hallowed Sky is that it’s a geopolitical novel. Now, when it comes to dealing with geopolitical powers, speculative writers usually take one of two avenues, the first (and laziest) route being “copy-paste politics.” Here the writer will take current-world powers and … that’s it. Nothing will be unfamiliar or surprising, and nothing will be original. We will see Freedom-Loving America™, Klepto-Mafia Russia™, and maybe a Mysterious, Orientalist China™—possibly with a Britain or Germany thrown in there with absolutely no flavour whatsoever. India will be poor and absent, Africa irrelevant, and the European Union completely nonexistent.
Undoubtedly the “copy-paste” focus on politics exists because readers are familiar with the tropes around the competing powers, and few further explanations are required. In some cases we’ll even devolve into repetitive reenactments of the past—after all, who could ever get bored with seeing the United States and Russia endlessly replay the Cold War? In fact, there’s practically a whole cadre of science fiction writers for whom the world stopped in 1989, and it’s one of the fastest ways to date a novel that’s supposed to dive headfirst into the future.
Like I said: lazy.
The second, more original approach is to fabricate new powers entirely. This is vastly preferable to the copy-paste method in that some actual creativity is required. Usually, we’ll see global powers that are completely divorced from anything that currently exists, either because it takes place in a galaxy far, far away, or the action is taking place so far into the future that whole worlds are unified and our ancient alliances have been long forgotten. In short, this method almost always involves physical or temporal distance from ourselves.
To my utter relief, Beyond the Hallowed Sky attempts a third and far more difficult option: taking the time to speculate on current political trends, and presenting us with an imaginative yet viable geopolitical future. The “powers that be” of 2070 are familiar to those of us living in the 2020s, yet they’ve taken divergent paths that say something about our current societies and our competing visions. By astutely speculating on our own turbulent times, MacLeod creates a truly engaging world, one featuring an abundance of hope and horror.
By the time the dust settled three great powers had consolidated: the Alliance, comprising the Anglosphere minus Ireland and Scotland and plus India; the Union, comprising most of continental Europe plus Ireland and Scotland; and the Co-ordinated States, a somewhat strained alliance of Russia, China and some of their dependencies.
Thankfully, despite the presence of the “Co-ord” the novel chooses not to rely on Cold War familiarity or Asian Othering. Instead, the central struggle takes place between the Union and the Alliance. This presents a whole new scenario, one we previewed under both Brexit and Trump: where “the West” no longer exists as a cooperating bloc, but has split into two ideological fronts. In Beyond the Hallowed Sky, these divisions have swelled and then blown wide open, with the post-War consensus annihilated and NATO long consigned to the past.
Despite this original premise, the Alliance itself won’t be too unfamiliar to science fiction readers: it’s implied to be an oligarchic, hypercapitalist state, one which is gung ho about religion, citizen abductions, and even the use of torture. This might sound dramatically dystopian, but it doesn’t come across as such. MacLeod is careful to present a nuanced view of his societies, and several of the story’s protagonists are Alliance citizens who are simultaneously good-natured and at ease with their society. This is not simply a culture of self-interested villains (though they certainly exist), but one in which an unequal status quo has cemented its power over hearts and minds.
The familiarity of the Alliance is contrasted by the strangeness of its rivals. I mentioned earlier the tendency to other non-Western cultures, a corrosive trope that Beyond the Hallowed Sky very thankfully avoids. In fact, if any of the world’s powers is mysterious—even, at times, bordering on vaguely sinister—it’s actually the Union. And this is where the novel gets truly interesting, because the Union also represents the side of social change and political optimism.
For the Europe of 2070, plenty has changed over the past fifty years: after witnessing nuclear war in West Asia and the catastrophic impact of climate change, the post-COVID-19 generation waged a successful continent-wide revolt known as the “Rising.” Primarily fought to retake power from corrupt elites, the Rising has resulted in ever-increasing economic democracy, with much of the workforce belonging to worker-run cooperatives and a government that seems at least marginally more benevolent than those of the Alliance.
But the Rising isn’t over. In fact, it was the start of an ongoing process known as the “Cold Revolution.” Like the Cold War, the Cold Revolution is a slower and less direct process than its warmer counterpart. Of course, the world’s oligarchies are keen to slow or stop the Revolution even as Europe advances it, and so the Union relies on an informal—and from the outside, somewhat sinister—collection of “cadres,” unofficial networks of individual operatives who comprise a sort of shadow government. And not everyone is on board with the Union’s ideals: in the first chapter of the novel, a London-based professor who’s defected from the Union compares the Cold Revolution to an ever-present background noise, one he’s more or less happy to escape. The novel is ambiguous as to whether his complaints are to be read as noble intellectual dissidence, privileged navel-gazing, or both. It plays well into MacLeod’s moral ambiguity.
Perhaps central to this ambiguity is Iskander. The most prominent character in the novel, Iskander is the Union’s AI, a sort of revolutionary Siri. Though both the Alliance and Co-ord have their equivalents, neither is as complex nor prevalent as Iskander, whose organisational capacity is at the very centre of the Cold Revolution. With their ability to anticipate the desires of the entire populace in real time, Iskander is the prelude to an egalitarian, moneyless society. (To each according to his need, indeed.) They are also viewed with some horror by Alliance citizens—who prize a more individualist ideal—while being a truly entertaining persona, witty and opaque in equal measure.
As is to be expected from the Rising and subsequent Cold Revolution, the Union’s goals are the exact opposite of the Alliance’s. When it comes to space exploration, the Alliance seeks to occupy and conquer new worlds, typified by its settling of the planet Apis. The Union, on the other hand, seeks to build them. This gives us Cloud City, a floating Union habitat in the Venusian atmosphere that serves as both scientific and social experiment; not only has the Union succeeded in constructing a liveable city in the middle of a hellscape, but this city functions entirely without the use of money (thanks, Iskander!). And what’s more, it’s beautiful.
He took a deep breath and spread out his arms, as if to encompass the bright dome-gridded sky and the entire one thousand-metre diameter of Cloud City, with its radiating hydroponic troughs, its hectares of green artificial grass interspersed with vegetable and shrub and tree and flower gardens and plots and pots, its winding paths, its stacked housing boxes, its clusters of laboratories and refineries and 3D printing works, its open-air café, its refectories, its commissary, its open-air gymnasium, its nine hundred and forty-seven citizens, and the circular running track around the perimeter on which, at that moment, either of these citizens doggedly jogged.
“Yes!” he said. “This is utopia.”
Yet despite Cloud City’s utopia, the Union’s idealism is quite nonidealistic. Just like the Alliance, the Union itself is a process, a system rolling onward via its own momentum. While the Alliance shows us the self-perpetuating power of the status quo, the Union demonstrates the self-perpetuating power of change:
The Cold Revolution rolled slowly and implacably on not by preaching a doctrine, not even by changing people’s minds, but by engaging their interests and passions in its silent machinery.
In this sense MacLeod’s story has no true heroes or villains, just the accumulated weight of structures and decisions propelling us toward the future. But don’t let all this nuance distract you, because despite the shades of grey it’s clear that the Union represents hope, and the Alliance cultural stagnation. In fact, my favourite aspect of the novel is its optimism. It’s an imperfect optimism, grounded in difficult realities and messy compromise, but that only makes it all the more believable. And, in depicting a society based in democratic workplaces, it’s an optimism that—for our own age, at least—is genuinely radical.
If this review has centred on politics, that’s because politics are at the very heart of Beyond the Hallowed Sky. Yes, I enjoyed the novel’s settings and characters (especially you, my beautiful Iskander!), yet said settings and characters exist to serve the political story rather than the other way around. As a result, the novel hops between a large number of diverse people and places, both terrestrial and extraterrestrial, Union and Alliance, as each chapter illustrates MacLeod’s world while advancing the strategic chess game between the great powers. This focus means that readers who prefer more character-driven speculative fiction may want to look elsewhere, as may those who prefer less politicised narratives.
However, if you’re anything like myself and love smartly political page turners, then you’ll absolutely race through MacLeod’s latest work. Reminiscent of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy, its grounded, hopeful vision of the future is one we sorely need in the increasingly fractious and disinformed environment of the 2020s—and this is only the first instalment. Iskander, please set a reminder for when the next one relea—oh, you already did? And you just ordered the lunch you knew I’d want?
That’s … umm … that’s great …