Review: Beyond the Hallowed Sky by Ken Macleod

  • On: 30th Jun 2023
  • Category: Reviews

Beyond the Hallowed Sky by Ken Macleod, first published November 25, 2021.

Beyond the Hallowed Sky is the first of Ken Macleod’s books that I’ve read (or, in this case, listened to). It’s the first entry in the Lightspeed trilogy, billed as a hard sci-fi space opera; I found it to be a bit of a mixed bag (in more ways than one) and would describe it as more of a near-future geopolitical sci-fi. Let’s get into the up and downs of my thoughts on the story and warning — spoilers ahead!

Let’s start with what I thought the story did well — world-building and prose. From a world-building perspective, Macleod takes the current world and extrapolates a possible future, imagining a plausible and yet foreign geopolitical climate of Earth circa 2070. A post-pandemic (my interpretation was this implied COVID) generation, having witnessed nuclear war and the impacts of climate change, initiated a revolt known as the ‘Rising’, and in the wake of this revolution, the world is divided into three main political blocs: continental Europe, Ireland and Scotland as the ‘Union’, the Anglosphere plus India as the ‘Alliance’, and a strained alliance of Russia and China as the ‘Co-ordinated States’ (all believable groups I thought, particularly based on the political events of the past few years).

These allied nations exist in a ‘Cold Revolution’, with cordial but uneasy relations present between them. Defection is so common that some of the more capable AI bluntly offer it to people as they enter different areas of political influence. The state of the world isn’t dumped upon us in an initial dump of exposition but rather sparingly sprinkles it out as the story unfolds, slowly painting a picture of the world and those who inhabit it. As much as the world is shaped by its political climate, its also shaped by the meteorological climate: sea levels have risen (and possibly still rising – there’s mention of a seawall ‘continually’ under construction, perhaps to keep pace with the sea), and airships dominate the sky (electric, low carbon travel perhaps).

Technology has advanced as well (to be expected), although at times, I found the progression to be a little inconsistent. I’ll touch on this a bit later, but one example is that on one hand, humanity has built a cloud city on Venus (very advanced), but on the other hand, they chose submarines as their FTL interstellar vessels of choice (not advanced and downright confusing) … more on that later. AI are commonplace and even societally normalised, including the Alliance’s ‘Smart-Alec’ and the Union’s ‘Iskander’ (a nod to Alexa, perhaps). The latter is a type of AI known as a Triple-AI, short for Anticipatory Algorithmic Artificial Intelligence — which makes it capable of anticipating each individual’s needs and wants before they need or want them, leading to information being provided just before its required and made-to-order coffees ready and waiting before they are desired. The AI's power is accessed through several devices, including what I imagined to be Google Glass-esc smart glasses and possibly implants, and controlled with gestures eerily similar to those of Apple’s up-and-coming Vision Pro headset.

As mentioned earlier, the other thing I thought the story did well was its prose. By my reckoning, the story is technically well-written, and I couldn’t fault it. It’s easy to read/listen to, and some of the naming choices were clever (calling the first aliens humanity encounters the ‘Fermi’, after the Fermi paradox). There are also several moments of humour that made me laugh out loud — not something books normally get me to do!

Now for the aspects that I thought the story did poorly — its hard science, narrative structure, and premise. If we visit the book's blurb for a moment, we’re enticed by the following:

When a brilliant scientist gets a letter from herself about faster-than-light travel, she doesn’t know what to believe. The equations work, but her paper is discredited - and soon the criticism is more than scientific. Exiled by the establishment, she gets an offer to build her starship from an unlikely source. But in the heights of Venus and on a planet of another star, a secret is already being uncovered that will shake humanity to its foundations.

From this, one might conclude, as I did, that the story is about a brilliant scientist discovering the secrets of FTL travel from herself, and the implementation of leads to some humanity-shaking revelations on Venus and an extrasolar world. While the first chapter stays true to this pitched premise, the second chapter dashes this upon the rocks by revealing that Russia, China, and the US have had FTL travel for decades (later on, I think it's stipulated as 50 years, which means those nations had FTL in our present day, which didn’t really track) and have been out and about exploring the universe, in complete secrecy (this was particularly unbelievable seeing as America’s democracy crumpled and was later regained within that timeframe – you’re telling me the super-secret FTL program wasn’t leaked when the government collapsed?).

I was irked further by the FTL technology functioning like a teleportation system, which I’d consider to be quite a different type of technology to FTL (let me know in the comments what you think — is teleportation the same as faster-than-light travel?). Additionally, nuclear submarines are inexplicably chosen as the vessels to fit FTL drives in, which I couldn’t make sense of or understand the rationale behind. These FTL subs also levitate out of the water prior to jumping, because of reasons, and teleport to Venus, the extrasolar world of Apis, and possibly space at one point. The complexities of teleporting between two locations in moving space notwithstanding, a nuclear submarine is an ill-suited vessel for out-of-water or vacuum environments, which shattered my suspension of disbelief, and tarnished its ‘hard sci-fi’ label.

The book’s narrative structure didn’t work well for me either, as it basically jumps between five different POVs on a per-chapter basis. I thought that this contradicted the blurb (but also isn’t alluded to in the blurb); it robbed the reader of meaningful time spent with a character, so one doesn’t build a particular affinity with the characters the story follows and makes it difficult to keep track of quite vastly different subplots, that only begin to converge towards the end of the book. Additionally, the story abruptly ends — not on a cliffhanger or meaningful resolution — it simply stops, as if the pause button was pressed. Rather than being a trilogy of three stories, I suspect it’ll be one story (or five subplots) in three parts.

Beyond the Hallowed Sky isn’t a story I’d recommend to everyone, but if the narrative style is to one’s liking (or one can overlook the narrative style) and get pasts the mixed bag of scientific concepts, it’s worth a read. Book 2, Beyond the Reach of Earth, dropped three months ago, and I think I’ll give it a read — hopefully, it’ll improve on some of the shortcomings of book 1, but only time will tell! Have you read Beyond the Hallowed Sky? What did you think — let me know down below!

Background image by Casey Horner on Unsplash