Review of Newton's Wake: A Space Opera by

Book cover for Newton's Wake: A Space Opera

I am so confused. It was all going well until the last few chapters, and then the story metamorphosed into a bizarre garden of shards of reality, and I lost the plot entirely.

Singularity and post-Singularity fiction does not seem to be my friend these days! In Newton’s Wake, the Singularity—which Ken MacLeod refers to as “the Hard Rapture” here—happens, and a vast percentage of the Earth’s population are involuntarily uploaded to machines. The AIs bootstrap themselves into faster-than-light starships and leave the Earth behind. Fast-forward a few centuries, and the survivors have picked themselves up by their bootstraps. They have reverse-engineered FTL, and some of them have even started to monopolize the network of planet-bound wormholes (“planetgates” perhaps?) for commercial advantage. Every so often, they come across the remnants of their posthuman cousins—incredibly dangerous machines that seem to enjoy eliminating ordinary humans (I assume because we smell bad and have terrible taste in television)—and all hell breaks loose.

It was all going so well until the ending. The barrier to entry is very low. We start with Lucinda Carlyle, a headstrong young woman in the clan of Carlyles who control the planetgates (I’m making it a thing, OK?). She takes a “combat archaeology” team to a hitherto unexplored planet, only to discover it’s got a hitherto unknown human settlement. And yes, posthuman war machines.

So Lucinda inadvertently causes a conflict of interstellar proportions, which I think is a pretty neat way for our protagonist to screw things up. And it promises to make for an exhilarating adventure. Indeed, things really pick up when Lucinda finally leaves Eurydice and finds her way back to her family, who are understandably pissed off by her mistake. She undertakes a suicide mission (literally, she dies and then her memory backup is decanted into a fresh body) to make herself feel better. It doesn’t work, but it does allow MacLeod to provide some very clunky exposition to keep the plot churning on.

Mind uploading is probably the big novum here in Newton’s Wake. It’s what led to the Hard Rapture, and it continues to be a point of contention among the various factions of humanity. Indeed, Eurydicean society is founded based on the schism between the Returners (who wanted to return to Earth and resurrect all the uploaded minds) and Reformers (who basically didn’t). Some factions, like the Carlyles, are all about resurrection. Others, like the Knights of Enlightenment, do not subscribe to that philosophy. The factions aren’t all that impressive. They all have silly names—Knights of Enlightenment, America Offline, and DK (Lucinda doesn’t know what it stands for). They are cardboard-cutout, their representative characters mostly one-dimensional stock characters to help the protagonists on their journey.

In addition to mind uploading, MacLeod includes some subtler ideas if you are willing to pay attention. For instance, Lucinda constantly references the Chronology Protection Conjecture as justification for FTL and planetgate travel. MacLeod speculates on the possibility that sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence can install itself at the quantum level, essentially controlling the universe as “quantum angels”. At this point, we’re getting into the fantasy side of posthuman fiction—but it’s still ridiculously cool.

I kind of which MacLeod had explored some of the consequences of the Hard Rapture more thoroughly instead of making the war machines into faceless, killer robot antagonists. This, combined with the relative shallowness of the antagonists, makes for a very unfulfilling conflict. Similarly, though the identity crisis that is part-and-parcel of mind uploading and resurrection gets mentioned, MacLeod never really expands on it, despite Lucinda dying and coming back for the first time.

Prior to reading it, I was suspicious of how thin Newton’s Wake was. Was it really possible to have a post-Singularity story in slightly more than 300 pages? Indeed it is, but it isn’t necessarily a good one.

Still, until the last few chapters, I was willing to give this a solid three stars. The inscrutability of those chapters soured me on the entire book. I can be a careful reader when I want to be, and I still don’t understand what happened—who was where, on what side, or for what reason. From the moment that Kevin drags Lucinda out of meeting on Eurydice, I am completely lost. I seldom feel like this, and when I do, it’s usually in an abstruse work of ego-stroking disguised as postmodern literary fiction.

What bothers me the most is that, because I don’t understand what happens at the end, I don’t understand how Lucinda has changed. Obviously she has become wiser. But exactly who is she working with and what is she working towards now? What was the point of the events at the end of the book? Newton’s Wake robs me of the closure every reader deserves upon reaching the very last page. And that, regardless of how intrigued I was at the beginning, is something I cannot abide.

Engagement

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