The cover illustration of Ken MacLeod's new novel, Descent, is made up entirely of black, white, and grey. It shows the silhouette of a person, presumably the book's protagonist Ryan Sinclair, floating, apparently unconscious, in what appears to be a spotlight. The light, which is not itself all that bright, comes down from above, spreading out and fading towards the bottom of the page where the book's title also appears in large white letters that fade to black at the bottom. The cover blurb says "Seeing is not believing." What we have here appears to be the classic alien abduction scenario, with the human being drawn from his bed, unable to move, ascending to a UFO which is manned, presumably, by alien Greys who will do strange, sometimes painful experiments on him, some of them oddly sexual in nature. And yet the title, Descent, when seen in context with the blurb, implies something else. Is Ryan in fact ascending into the UFO or has the close encounter already taken place? Is what we're seeing an actual abduction or merely a powerful dream of the sort that leaves the dreamer confused and unsatisfied, descending back into a normal world that will never seem quite normal again? Can Ryan, can we the readers, here redefined as voyeurs (as is Ryan himself), in a near-future Scotland which features near-perfect surveillance technology, believe anything we see, dream, or read?
The story opens with Ryan, an obviously troubled adult, lying on his bed in Edinburgh, wearing iGlasses, which allow him to connect effortlessly with surveillance cameras around the world. He's spying on Gabrielle, who we eventually discover is his ex-girlfriend, as she leaves her flat in Glasgow and heads for work. Ryan is a talented but somewhat self-destructive freelance science journalist who carries in his past a dark secret. When he was in his teens he and his best friend Calum (who now lives with Gabrielle, by the way) had a close encounter with . . . something.
The light became a bright sphere, shimmering and expanding.
"Weather balloon," said Calum.
"Why's it coming down?"
We gazed up at the now silvery sphere for a few more seconds as it became bigger and—I suddenly realised—far closer than I'd thought.
"Fuck, that's no a—" Calum grabbed my arm. "Come on, it'll be right on top ae us!"
We sprinted pell-mell across the heather. I remember a moment when the hillside in front of me was illuminated brighter than day, then a moment when I could see nothing but white light. (p. 20)
The boys wake up sometime later in a circle of burned heather, not knowing what happened. Was it ball lightning, a weather balloon, an experimental aircraft, or something more ominous? In any case, though this happened on top of a hill not far from town, in the middle of the day (albeit a misty one), no one else saw anything and no weather balloon or experimental aircraft was ever reported missing.
Ryan is shaken to the core by his experience. Already a fan of UFO literature, he becomes obsessed with the possibility that he has had a close encounter, an obsession that is reinforced when he begins to have disturbing dreams. Then it actually happens, the classic night-time abduction, complete with alien Greys, the anti-gravity-inducing spotlight, and the on-ship sexual encounter. In this case, however, the sex is with what appears to be a human woman dressed in clothes absurdly reminiscent of Nichelle Nichols's mini-skirted Star Trek uniform. The woman, who is gorgeous of course, insists that he masturbate for her in order to give them a sample of his DNA. Oh, and they also want him to deliver a message to all of humankind, namely that science and reason will be humanity's only salvation.
That's it. Ryan awakens in his bed, not quite certain that the whole encounter was a dream, and rendered strangely off balance by the experience. All of his family members notice that he's at once distant and hyper, suddenly given to odd pronouncements. He tells his father what happened and they head off for the site of the original close encounter, only to discover that it's been torn up for a building project. Calum, who hasn't experienced any of the dreams or psychic dislocation that have troubled Ryan, suggests that they forget the whole thing. Ryan can't quite let go however, and he soon turns to his computer to do an intense search for UFO-related materials, including some connected to the Book of Revelation, trying to find parallels for his experience. That's when he has his first meeting with James Baxter.
The stranger, dressed in black (and there are references to Men in Black throughout the book), identifies himself as a minister, part of the "parochial pastoral ecumenical outreach initiative" (p. 90). Baxter is there, he claims, to help Ryan with any problems he might be having related to "erotic dreams and fantasies . . . untutored Bible reading . . . End Times prophecies" (pp. 93-4). Ryan, of course, recognizes that there’s something fishy about the man—without having said as much, he simply knows more than he should about the boy's recent internet searches—and essentially refuses to give the supposed minister any information. Ryan runs an ID check on James Baxter that comes back just fine, but later, he discovers, and there's no real surprise here, that there is no such minister.
For a book that makes at least some pretense to the thriller form, MacLeod's novel does little to ratchet up the tension at this point. Ryan grows up and goes to college. He majors in English and gradually moves into science journalism. He has one more enigmatic meeting with Baxter, who now claims totally different credentials, in a college bar where the man shows up immediately after Ryan has been talking to an old friend about his UFO theories. It's clear that in this near-future surveillance society, everything Ryan says is being tracked and taken quite seriously, though we still have no idea why or by whom. Nothing all that obvious comes of this, though Baxter does convince Ryan, who is an atheist, that he might do well to spend time talking to theology majors. Ryan continues to float through his life while the more ambitious Calum becomes a successful scientist. At least one young woman (the friend from the bar) becomes enamored of Ryan, but he's never quite sure how to handle such situations until Calum takes him to a wild wedding party where he meets his friend's distant cousin Gabrielle. They click immediately and gradually become a very believable couple who are obviously moving towards marriage. They even talk about having children.
It is here that another possible meaning for the book's title manifests itself. Descent, "derivation from an ancestor: birth, lineage." Somewhat earlier in the story the beetle-browed Calum, demonstrating the affect of someone revealing a deep, dark family secret, tells Ryan that his people were directly descended not only from the ancient travelers and tinkers of Ireland, but from the Neanderthals: "we've always been here. We were here before . . . other people. Before the ice" (p. 82). Calum is claiming a deep genetic difference between himself and his people, on the one hand, and Ryan and the majority of humanity on the other. Whether this is true or not is never made clear but, years later, Calum's claim puts Ryan, now a skilled scientific database researcher, on the trail of a related but more pressing genetic mystery, something that does differentiate him from Calum, that destroys his relationship with Gabrielle, and that might have serious consequences for the human race as a whole. Is humanity, he wonders, lurching all unknowingly into a genuine near-future speciation event?
The thing that will annoy the hell out of readers who like their science fiction novels all tied up with string at the end, but that adds enormous and realistic complexity to MacLeod's tale, is that most of the time we never find out anything for certain. The speciation event may be real, it may be a statistical anomaly, or it may be something that's always been there, something that we have only become aware of in this age of supercomputers and massive data analysis. Then, who is James Baxter really? After two previous changes of identity he finally checks out as a retired aeronautical engineer who was involved in the development of a revolutionary new form of flight which has now been made at least partially public. He's also a Member of the Scottish Parliament for an odd and outspoken splinter party. But why has he kept Ryan under constant surveillance for so many years? Was his appearance after the original anomalous event just a case of Baxter's making a clumsy attempt to keep the aircraft secret or was something deeper involved, something less obvious, the protection perhaps of some even more advanced form of technology? Ryan researches many theories and tries to differentiate actual secrets from disinformation with relatively few results. Baxter, however, if anything, seems to make things worse for himself by interfering in Ryan's life, unless, again, he's playing a double game. And why do the professional killers show up at Ryan's apartment, make threats, and beat him up without ever really telling him what they want from him? Finally, in a world of many major players, only some of whom have been identified, and some of whom may not be human, why the heck does a minor science journalist like Ryan Sinclair matter? MacLeod cooks up any number of false (or not false) trails and any number of possible answers to these questions, but ultimately, as the cover blurb says, "Seeing is not believing."
Ken MacLeod does occasionally produce books that require sequels, the Engines of Light trilogy (2000-2002) for example, but he generally sticks to standalone novels. Descent has more than enough loose ends to justify another volume, but I'm guessing that there won't be one. Mysteries are piled on mysteries here. It can be exasperating but MacLeod uses the indeterminacy to explore his well-developed characters, critique the Alice in Wonderland-like nature of a supposedly open and liberal surveillance society, and, in the end, generate a genuine sense of awe. A final thought: I'd love to see what Christopher Nolan, or even the David Lynch of Mulholland Drive, could do with this book.
Michael Levy teaches English at an obscure Wisconsin university and is a past president of both the Science Fiction Research Association and The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.
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