I want to avoid trashing books, since the goal of this blog is to engage the ideas, themes, and characters of books, on the author’s terms. However, Engine City has such issues with writing and presentation that it seems unavoidable that I talk about the writing. I didn’t like the characters in this book. I did not care what happened to them. The leaps from chapter to chapter isn’t graceful but comes across as disjointed. It isn’t always straightforward how one chapter necessarily relates to the last, despite the fact that the story progresses linearly, switching among various time points and character perspectives. Another source of confusion lies in the advancement of story by years – and it isn’t always clear by how many years – as the story uses slow-than-light travel, meaning that there is time-dilation. To be sure, the story, plot, and characters aren’t difficult to follow, but the writing disrupted narrative flow and went a long way to sour the novel’s entertainment value for me.
Aside from that, I thought there are a number of interesting ideas. First and foremost, MacLeod tackles the issue of the Singularity. For all intents and purposes, the Singularity implies the existence of an advanced intelligence. We cannot hope to relate, in our present humanity, to this intelligence. It matters not where the intelligence arose (alien, human made silica, or post-transcendence human.) Various sci-fi authors have settled into different camps/schools, regarding how they should tackle this subject. Some of them argue that it is difficult to write about post-Singularity events, so it makes sense to ignore it and focus on the non-transcendent characters. In other words, the authors will continue to muck it out with the plebes. Some others focus on mundanes interacting/divining the intentions of the Singularity.
I, for one, do not see the difficulty in dealing with the Singularity. Since humans cannot hope to understand a god’s mind, or a Singularity-intelligence, I think, practically speaking, we can make up any motive/action that we want. After all, such an approach has worked for religion. Therefore, I do not see putting words into god’s mouth as a hurdle for sci-fi writers.
MacLeod introduces such a concept, although this aspect of the story isn’t really emphasized. The gods, in this case, arose from nanp-silica based life on asteroids. Bathed in the energy of the sun, they aggregated not into a multi-cell organism, but a networked multi-cellular, super-intelligence. And this super-intelligence does not like noise. So it does what any self-respecting Transcendent will do, who has access to computational powers to model million-body Newtonian mechanical problems. It uses mass-driver weapons to destroy, with pinpoint precision, sources of said noise. The only thing it needs are the right sized asteroids and time. We find out how this intelligence deals with infestations at the beginning and the end of the novel.
What happens in between deals with humans, displaced into a set of star systems on the other side of Sol, readying themselves for an alien invasion. The alien invasion, it turns out, may be a red herring. It turns out these aliens are in fact our creators, and we are not certain what threat they carry. They already had one colony that had been destroyed on earth (and they had manipulated lifeforms there that eventually evolved into humans.) The novel concerns itself with the interface between humans and their creators, although this matter isn’t probed too deeply.
The nature of these creatures is that they can make a lot of things. They are, in essence, cornucopias. This is a direction that comes too late in the way the novel is plotted; as it is, we don’t really see what impact these creatures would have. A new philosophical idea was also introduced: if the gods could develop out in hard vacuum, in nanostructures of space material, then such intelligences may also have developed on a planet. This “gaia” may work in concert with the gods in the asteroids. Again, this idea came too late, since, at this point, new characters enter the plot and eventually captures and executes the heroes.It is interesting that the heroes were executed not for their role in fomenting instability and war, but for “deicide”. Thus, it is as if the story was composed of multiple short stories.
At first, I thought this proved a failing, since it led to abrupt transitions, dangling plot lines, and unexplored consequences. Over time, I can see how this style of exposition may have worked. The exposition style limits our point of view to when our heroes make their port of calls, after a physical journey of immense temporal delays. We see them encounter civilization at different points of development. Their unsteady grasp of their present encounter is mirrored by the reader’s own disorientation after each time jump, with disorientation lessening as the plot develops for that time period. Unfortunately, I do not feel that MacLeod pulled it off.