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Engine City cover

"Why am I me and why not you?" asks a child in Wim Wenders's 1987 film Wings of Desire. "Why am I here and why not there? When did time begin and where does space end?" An angel stands nearby, invisible, existing outside the limits imposed by human bodies. He is the only witness to the child's thoughts, weaving them into the story the angel tells to eternity.

In Ken MacLeod's new novel Engine City -- the third book of his Engines of Light series -- a young woman named Susan voluntarily inhales spores from a furry, eight-eyed, eight-limbed species called the Multipliers. A fever comes over her; colors become more vivid. She sees the "incredible intricacy of the lichens on the log," and contemplates "the molecular machinery of the leaves on the trees." God, she tells a Multiplier, is in everything. "Yes," replies the eight-legged alien, "did you not know?" Memories and thoughts, not her own, blossom in her consciousness, fragments from other lives. The tiny Multipliers that now live in her body not only extend her life, but also establish a continuum with the consciousness of billions of Multipliers and other creatures touched by them. For Susan, the line between me and you has dissolved. She is both here and there. Her story will live on, carried by the angels.

Engines of Light began in 2000 with Cosmonaut Keep and continued the following year with Dark Light. The series tells the millennia-spanning tale of humankind's contact with a race of "extremophile nanobacteria" -- which the Earthlings call simply "the gods" -- that exist in asteroids and cometary masses throughout the galaxy, linked into a vast cosmic mind of "exquisite sensitivity." The story centers on a group of 21st century cosmonauts propelled by the gods to the planet Mingulay in a region of space 100,000 light years away from Earth. There the cosmonauts find a "Second Sphere" inhabited by deracinated human populations, their planets linked by starfaring giant squid called the kraken and humanoid dinosaurs called the saurs.

In Cosmonaut Keep, the immortal cosmonauts and their descendents re-discover the secret to interstellar travel (monopolized until that point by the krakens) and travel five lights years from Mingulay to Croatan. Their arrival in Dark Light triggers a social revolution on Croatan. In the course of events, the travelers discover that in previous epochs, Earth's species waged genocidal war with the Multipliers, apparently at the instigation of the gods, and that the Multipliers are now reaching the Second Sphere. Who are they and what do they want? Is the existence of the Second Sphere a kind of Maginot Line constructed by the gods against the Multiplier invasion? Or are the gods pitting the Earth-descended species against the Multipliers in a cosmic population control measure? These are the questions that are finally answered in Engine City, in ways that are unexpected but consistent with MacLeod's body of work.

Ken MacLeod is known as one of the most political of science fiction writers, his plots driven by the confrontation between collectivist and individualist social philosophies, a conflict in which he seems to continuously switch sides. But his seven full-length novels have also always asked deeper questions about the nature of intelligence and our relationship with machines, embracing answers that conceal Gnostic mysticism within a shell of scientific materialism. Engine City is not his strongest work -- in many ways, it is his weakest -- but the novel is also his most philosophically reconciled, in which MacLeod seems to achieve the epistemological synthesis he has always restlessly sought.


In his 1998 novel The Cassini Division, MacLeod's characters transcend their mortal limits by uploading their consciousnesses into android bodies or virtual environments, a process that one character describes as "the Rapture of the nerds." One such group of post-humans set themselves up as false gods seeking to dominate the solar system, only to be destroyed in a cometary bombardment orchestrated by a soldier named Ellen May Ngewthu. Ellen May's hatred of the post-humans extends to all artificial and digitized intelligence, until she is forced to transfer her consciousness from her body to an electronic environment and back again, displacing her original consciousness with a copy. "Something happened then," says Ellen May, "in that brief, eternal moment when I sparked across the gap between [the computer] and the skull. . . . I saw a galaxy of green and gold, its starlight filtered through endless, countless habitats; the federation of our dreams. And behind it all, in the walls of all our worlds, an immense but finite benevolence, a great engine of protection and survival; a god on our side, a terror to our enemies and a friend to us, worlds without end."

Science fiction always claims to arise from Enlightenment values and empirical science, and yet it is filled with mystical images such as this one -- images that have a very specific point of origin. To understand Ellen May Ngewthu's revelation, it is necessary to move beyond the Aristotelian paradigm science fiction claims as its home, to an ancient heresy called Gnosticism.

Running through Jewish, Christian, and Sufi traditions, Gnosticism describes nature as tragically alienated from a God who created existence but now stands apart from it. In early Christian Gnostic texts such as the Sethian, the creature we call God is the bastard child of greater heavenly beings. He creates the world out of arrogance and ignorance, falsely declaring Himself to be the one true God. In the Sethian Apocryphon of John, Genesis is retold as a fable in which God withholds moral knowledge and eternal life from humanity so as to maintain His illegitimate authority. Fragments of the divine realm reside within each living thing, however, and salvation can be achieved by discovering that pneuma within each human soul.

Gnostic tradition has sought to bypass the false Father figure through meditation and incantation, mystical processes that depended upon the power of individual consciousness. To achieve Gnosis -- the knowledge of the true God in oneself -- the initiate refines her subjectivity to a sharp edge, striving to directly access what Plato called the World of Forms, a realm of ideal order and beauty.

It's an approach to knowledge that exists in fundamental tension with scientific materialism, the dominant mode of our time, for which the subjectivity of the scientist is irrelevant. To be legitimate, scientific discovery must be reproducible by anyone, not just those pure of heart or with rigorously disciplined perception. Not everyone can cast a spell, but anyone can click on the Internet.

The paradox is that technology does actually provide the transcendence long promised by worlds and beings that cannot be empirically documented. It has extended our short, brutish lives, dissolved distances, accelerated time, and expanded our nervous systems into global, digitized environments -- and does it all through the power of our own bodies and minds, not an otherworldly deity. It should therefore come as no surprise that we interpret technology's power through the lens of a Gnostic past. "The preeminence of the machine brought about by the industrial revolution did not rob us of the idea of the soul at all," writes Victoria Nelson in her 2001 book The Secret Life of Puppets, "On the contrary, the machine received this idea, just at that critical moment when the old cosmogony gave way to the new."

The secret of the success of science fiction is that the genre understands and utilizes this paradox to explore the impact of technology on our perception and identity. In this sense, science fiction is not a break with the superstitious past, but its continuation. This is why so much science fiction, despite its materialist protestations, ends with images of transcendence: the star child of 2001: A Space Odyssey; the merging of human consciousness in novels like Joe Haldeman's Forever Peace; or the Christ-like One who emerges to save the world in films like The Matrix. The Gnostic tendency in science fiction is most explicit in the novels of Philip K. Dick, who wrote extensively about his own personal Gnostic revelation and its connection to his work.

When Ellen May Ngewthu crosses over to "the federation of our dreams" as her consciousness merges with a machine, MacLeod is not making a subtle allusion. Hers is an unambiguously Gnostic revelation, in which the false, external gods are destroyed and the true one is revealed to have been there all along, inside us. In this late capitalist updating of the Gnostic myth, however, transcendence is brought about through a technology that anyone can use.


When Susan inhales the spores of the Multipliers, she undergoes a similar transformation. In the Prologue to Engine City, MacLeod rewrites the book of Genesis along lines similar to the creation story in The Apocryphon of John while also rewriting the background of the first two novels in Engines of Light.

As summarized in the Prologue, the gods evolve into galaxy-spanning consciousness while the "multicellular trick" takes off on Earth, giving birth to a biosphere and its first intelligent species, the krakens. Then the Multipliers arrive from another star. Throughout Engines of Light, MacLeod hints that all the complex systems he portrays -- including planetary climates -- possess some degree of self-awareness, a mystery he resolves when the gods, krakens, and Multipliers explicitly establish contact with Earth's mind, which is "like that of a pre-verbal child or an animal. Its thoughts were dreams, afterimages, abstractions."

The Multipliers genetically uplift "promising species of small, bipedal, tailless dinosaurs," creating the saurs, who in no time at all are building cities and flying discoid skiffs around the solar system. The Multipliers and saurs dig into the surfaces of asteroids and comets in search of resources, their explorations creating "radiation noise" and an "endless blether of information" that unfortunately begins to irritate the bacterial gods. Earth is subjected to an asteroid bombardment that brings the Cretaceous epoch "to a cataclysmic close." The Multipliers disappear. The saurs and krakens flee to the Second Sphere and seed it with genetic material from Earth, occasionally returning for more, beginning a traffic that continues "for the next sixty-five billion years." Cowed by the destruction, the saurs build a culture based upon reverence for the gods. "Yes," say the saurs to the younger species of the Second Sphere, "the gods live in the sky. No, they do not listen to prayers. No, they do not tell us what to do. Their first and last commandment is: Do not disturb us."

The rest of Engine City tells the story of how a group of humans and saurs find a way to achieve transcendence without the help of the indifferent gods. In MacLeod's novels, intelligence and personality arise from the convergence of embodied experience, individually immutable and yet infinitely expandable when deposited into the spiritual machine described by Victoria Nelson. When these machines -- in this case, starships -- bring MacLeod's characters into contact with the alien Other, they break free of the past and the power of the gods.

"We are aware that the world-minds may wish us to fight, to diminish our numbers," says a Multiplier. They offer an alternative: the transcendence experienced by Susan, which brings her the knowledge and eternal life withheld by the gods. "Susan wanted to get away, to do things that had never been done before, to see new worlds. . . . At the same time she wanted to stay. . . . She wanted her experiences, her very self, to be multiple. She realized she was thinking like a Multiplier." The old gods do not survive the revelation brought about by contact with the Multipliers, and all the species of the Second Sphere confront a future that promises freedom, if they have the strength to use it.

Don't let all this philosophy fool you, however. Ken MacLeod is first and foremost a masterful storyteller. Engine City is a thoroughly enjoyable read, although in many ways it does not continue the growth MacLeod has demonstrated throughout his previous work. In particular, the characterization in Engine City suffers from what appears to be hasty composition. There is no equivalent to Stone in Dark Light, who remains MacLeod's most complex and beautifully written character, and Susan is probably the least interesting protagonist in MacLeod's body of work. New characters (such as the Illyrian spy Gaius Gonatus) come and go with little dramatic purpose while old ones hover about in various states of arrested development.

Engine City is also much less tightly plotted than MacLeod's previous novels. It discards MacLeod's usual device of jumping between parallel stories separated by centuries, and he seems uncertain as to how to build suspense or sustain conflict without it, opting for a more-or-less linear tale of intrigue and adventure. At certain points in the novel, he seems to simply lose track of his characters and their subplots, in a novel that could have used another 100 patiently written, ruthlessly edited pages. The hint of laziness that emerged in Dark Light reappears in Engine City, a disquieting sign in a writer so promising.

Despite these caveats, MacLeod is still the most important science fiction writer to emerge in the past decade, and I am waiting to see if he can slow down long enough to write the great novel that I know he can. The shelves of retail chains are lined with the names of authors who can write potboilers that sell, but few of them are capable of asking: Why am I me and why not you? Why am I here and not there? When did time begin and where does space end? That is why Ken MacLeod matters.


Copyright © 2003 Jeremy Smith

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Jeremy Smith is deputy director of the Independent Press Association in San Francisco. He is the former publisher of Dollars and Sense, the progressive economics magazine. Since 1989, he has worked as an organizer and fundraiser for the student and labor movements. He's also lived and traveled extensively in Central Europe. Jeremy's journalism, essays, and criticism have appeared in the AlterNet, Interzone, January, The Nation, Prague Post, Rain Taxi, San Francisco Bay Guardian, SF Chronicle, SF Examiner, and numerous other publications. For more about him, visit his website.

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