The Cassini Division

Ken MacLeod

Orbit 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003
At the beginning of the 24th century, the inner Solar System is dominated by the socialist Solar Union. Their front-line fighting force, the Cassini Division, defends against viral attacks from post-human Jovians and keeps careful watch on a wormhole. Ellen May Ngwethu, a member of the Division's Central Committee, travels to areas of Earth occupied by "non-cos", low-tech anarchists who still use such antiquated devices as money. Her goal is to find the physicist Malley, whose help is necessary to find a way through the wormhole. And after taking the losing side in a debate over whether to bomb the Jovians or to try to communicate with them, Ellen travels through the wormhole to ultra-capitalist New Mars.

After a slower opening, there largely to link back to earlier books set in the same universe, The Cassini Division rattles along at a good pace. It is not particularly compelling as a novel, however, with no characters that really come to life. Ellen has centre-stage throughout but remains something of a cipher, her dominant feature her dedication to "the true knowledge" on which the Solar Union was founded ("self interest") and her hostility to non-humans, both rooted in her personal history. And none of the other characters gets much play at all. Suze, for example, is a sociologist who joins Ellen early on in the story and has as high a profile in it as anyone else, but she could still have been trivially edited out.

The science is "space opera" style, deployed when necessary for the plot but otherwise passed over, and the intellectual interest comes from the politics. This takes the form of open discussions of political theory and depictions of different forms of social organisation in action, but it never becomes didactic or stodgy. MacLeod himself is a Trotskyist libertarian, a label which gives some feel for his eclecticism, and he depicts very different political systems working reasonably well — though he often verges on parody. There are also plenty of little jokes, such as a statue of Mises in the Central Planning Committee building.

A significant factor is that aging has been stopped, so many people are centuries old and have political views formed in the 21st century. This makes the recurrence of current political ideologies three centuries down the road more plausible, but it is also a key stabilising factor. Whether in non-co areas of Earth, in the Solar Union, or on New Mars, to a great extent the system works because it's what people are accustomed to. And even the Jovian "fast folk", descendants of humans who moved into computers and experienced a kind of singularity, have some continuity with their past.

Overall? There's not much more to it, but The Cassini Division makes a decently entertaining action story, with plenty of ideas for anyone interested in political theory. I'm not going to rush off and buy Ken MacLeod's other books, but I'll keep an eye out for a chance to borrow them or scam review copies.

June 2003

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%T The Cassini Division
%A MacLeod, Ken
%I Orbit
%D 1998
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1857237307
%P 240pp