When Foucault’s Pendulum meets Men in Black – The Descent by Ken Macleod. A book review

When a book starts like The Descent does, with the protagonist blaming himself to be a stalker, pervert, drug-addict, conspiracy theorist, and “fuck it. Compared to all the other things I have to be ashamed of, what I’m doing right now is a foible” (location 51 of the e-book), you have only two options: either you’re already hooked or you know you are going to loathe it, for the tone if not for the topic, and you throw it away. Mine was obviously the first case.

By the end of the short prologue – the same place and time you will find yourself at the very end of the book, in a sort of circular narrative structure – you have also learnt a couple of other important things. That you’re in Scotland, so you had better equip yourself with some local slang. And that Ryan, your protagonist, has a wry, dark humour that will make your journey utterly enjoyable.


The inside flap sells it as “a science fiction story for the twenty-first century, from the author of 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award-nominated Intrusion. This is what happens when conspiracy theorists meet Big Brother.” I would argue there is no Orwellian, ominous and oppressive atmosphere here: the tone is different, and so it should be given its premises.

The plot is deceivingly simple. Two teenagers have a weird encounter with aliens, or so they believe, and one of them (Ryan) grows up utterly obsessed by UFOs and conspiracy theories. This keeps staying with him and affecting his university years and relations with girls, until something similarly odd happens again.

The book has many levels of reading and it’s a compelling story no matter where you pitch yours, even when you have doubts they are all necessary. (http://universeinwords.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/review-descent-by-ken-macleod.html). Personally, I don’t (doubt) – and I have truly enjoyed the numerous references, explicit and not. The Pendulum of Foucault (or Foucault’s Pendulum, depending on different translations) is the most obvious, and not only because of the topic (in that case, a conspiracy theory of uncanny beauty well before the Da Vinci Code), or the fact that an important part is played here by a book you don’t know until the end if it exists or not (and in The Name of the Rose a book is the motive for murders). Or because Ryan himself makes direct references to Umberto Eco (loc. 1012).

There is another, more in-depth reason why the Pendulum has a direct link to The Descent. In Eco’s story, the three protagonists started the whole conspiracy as a game, that suddenly becomes real – and mortal – because somebody starts believing it is. And the cancer that strikes Diotallevi is a sort of metaphysics translation of this confusion. In MacLeod’s book this aspect is maintained somehow less prominent, and yet you wonder about it all along – keeping saying to yourself that it doesn’t matter is the things Ryan believes, or he thinks he believes, are real or not. Reality, like security, and conspiracy, is socially constructed, as many political scientists and sociologists will eagerly confirm (http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199743292/obo-9780199743292-0091.xml. Incidentally, this is a topic already explored by the author in a previous novel, The Restoration Game).

Many other references are present in the book, from Ufology to intelligence studies – the reference to Angleton’s wilderness of mirrors is evident (loc. 1186 and again 3933) – to MoD’s secret reports about unidentified objects in the skies.  And maybe it is a sign of our times that every conspiracy theory has to included the Chinese (this is not the first case I noticed in the last ten years, and I am going to write shortly on the subject). The mention to Cheng Ho, Zheng He in Chinese Pinyin – the Admiral many credited, true or not (http://www.1421exposed.com), with having discovered America long before the Europeans, is certainly well-pitched.

Is this “a bloke-lit, near-future” story – or, to use the words of the author, “a first-person, confessional tale of an ordinary guy who behaves with typical male insensitivity and self-absorption until at least one exasperated woman-in-his-life knocks him about the head with some home truths” and whose “excuse for being such a dick is that in his teens he got knocked on the head by a flying saucer”? (http://kenmacleod.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/the-writing-front.html). Possibly, but there is so much more in it that in my own view this is not what you should search into it, even though this aspect sure represents part of its fun.

Another doubt concerns its timeframe. When does it happen? In a XXI century Scotland, considering what is mentioned in terms of tech exploits, China’s overpowering presence and the widespread presence of drones, of all sizes. And the Big Deal seems to suggest a FDR-kind of major “pact” among different social and economic actors after an always-likely, future Great Depression. Apart from precise references to Gramsci and socialist revolutions, not a lot more is said (You should be happy about it! Communism and sci-fi don’t make good bedfellows – normally. Exceptions do exist.) But, given the strong political emphasis, some more clarity and more details about the settings would have added to its interest.

The book ends very much the way it has started, and some questions still remain open, first and foremost regarding the title. Why the descent? Considering the event – real or imagined – that changes the protagonist and therefore the story – shouldn’t abduction be more appropriate? (I’m not the only one to have noticed it: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2014/03/book-review-descent-ken-macleod. If nothing else, out of disambiguation with other books with same title but not same topic, without even mentioning same quality…)

Certainly enough, it would be good if MacLeod keeps working on this subject, maybe approaching it from a different angle. I love conspiracy theories, provided they are not dull or dramatically idiotic, like so many we are plagued with. It’s never the case here, and the intellectual game is stimulating and refreshing. And yes, I really hope Ken keeps his word (http://upcoming4.me/news/book-news/the-story-behind-descent-by-ken-macleod) : I do want a spaceship on the cover of his next book, and I can’t wait to read it!


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