By Ken MacLeod

Reviewed Oct 12, 2018 on The Litt Review.

The cover wasn’t promising; a badly-drawn sillouette of a teenager being dragged up a beam of light. The tagline, ‘Seeing is not believing,’ together with the title clashing with the ascending figure in the image, made me a bit more than confused. But a friend suggested it, so I got it anyway, resorting to buying it on Amazon as it hasn’t been published in the States yet. I read the book in almost one sitting - a plane from Boston to JFK, and then a few hours of another plane through to Seoul - and I wasn’t bored for any of it. I also read the book while on the bus between terminals, and walking around, so, ‘gripping’ might be a good term for it.

The story starts off very promising; our narrator is watching his ex-fiancé through drone cameras with feelings of both desire and self-disgust. Presumably, this is before they outlaw ubiquitous stalking. However, the majority of the book becomes a flashback to his teenage years shortly after, and the panopticon of guilt that was promised doesn’t quite materialize for the rest of the book. Instead, we’re treated to an absurd alien abduction of two truant kids, which turns into a lot of paranoid theorizing about Neanderthals, Scottish Travelers, Roswell coverups, socialism, failed revolutions, and more. It is fun - but absurd. Our guide is a lackluster semi-reliable narrator, whose main excerise in the dramatic seems to be getting all excited and then not telling us why for a few pages, by which time we’re not in suspense anymore. Where the narrator isn’t convincing, the plot isn’t, either. The denouement is somewhat unsatisfying. I won’t spoil it, and it’s possible that it’d be great for other people, but I wasn’t enamored of all of the plot twists and turns, and how getting together with a high school crush while holding down a real job seems to tie everything up in a bow a bit too prettily.

However, while I’ve not been exactly kind to the author above, this book was delicious for another reason; the setting is in Edinburgh. And, beyond any other city I can think of, it’s nice for me to actually know all of the geographical references, and in some cases down to the specific bars and shops where our characters hang out. This got downright creepy. The Edinburgh University SF Society is mentioned way more than a couple of times, which was always an out-of-body experience for me, as I used to be its President. Indeed, between our protagonist joining that society (and the humanist society), and trying to defend science as a viable alternative to Christianity, and his awkward naïveté when it came to women, I felt almost like I was reading an autobiography in places (sans UFOs). One paragraph had me seriously doubt whether or not I’d actually met Ken MacLeod somewhere.

Baxter leaned forward a little, and spoke in a low but vehement voice: ‘It’s an old programmer joke. Stands for ‘Read the Fucking Manual’. God help them if that’s how they see the Bible! Nit-picking, pluke-faced, world-building nerds - they’d be better off in the SF Soc, if you ask me, applying their exegetical skills to the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

I could have written that. I’ve certainly lived it. Creepy. Also, this passage:

‘No,’ said Gabrielle. ‘You’re a hack, and a flack, and there’ll always be younger and hungrier hacks after that sort of job. You’re stuck in a fucking comfort zone where you think because right now you earn more than me, and that’s enough to furnish a wee poky flat in fucking Leith, that’s enough to be going on with. Well as far as I am concerned it fucking isn’t.’

Which was scarily relevant for entirely different reasons.

On that note, I’m going to say that I liked this book. I want to read more of MacLeod’s work now. Descent was perfect for long flights, and I wish I had bought another to read during the next 10 hours of the one ahead of me.

This book was suggested by Rachael Smith.


  • lums, n. Scottish, Northern English. A chimney. Victorian lums
  • imbricated, overlapping, as of tiles
  • mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body
  • smirr, n. Scottish. drizzly rain.
  • mooch, v. loiter in a bored or listless manner. we mooched on
  • whin, n. furze; gorse.
  • crinoids, n. an echinoderm of the class Crinoidea, which comprises the sea lilies and feather stars.
  • dhania, n. the leaves or seeds of the coriander plant, used to flavour food.
  • fungivory, n. the act of eating mushrooms
  • psilocybin, n. a hallucinogenic alkaloid, found in some toadstools.
  • Von Daniken, n. a Swiss author of several books which make claims about extraterrestrial influences on early human culture, including the best-selling Chariots of the Gods?, published in 1968.
  • shoogly, n. unsteady. Scottish.
  • dapple, n. a patch or spot of color or light, as of leaves the dapple
  • Fine, n. the People, Gaelic
  • gadgies, n. a person who is poorly educated and engages in hooliganism, petty criminality or loutish behaviour. This usage sometimes carries the connotation of youth.
  • peplum, n. a short flared, gathered, or pleated strip of fabric attached at the waist of a woman’s jacket, dress, or blouse to create a hanging frill or flounce.
  • apophatic, adj. (of knowledge of God) obtained through negation.
  • aniline, n. a colorless oily liquid present in coal tar. It is used in the manufacture of dyes, drugs, and plastics, and was the basis of the earliest synthetic dyes.
  • dubiety, n. the state or quality of being doubtful; uncertainty.
  • brolly, n. ScEng. umbrella.
  • clarsach, n. A small harp with wire strings, used in the folk and early music of Scotland and Ireland. Celtic harp.
  • handfasting, n. old term for engagement
  • pluke, n. spot, pimple, pustule.
  • poky, adj. (of a room or building) uncomfortably small and cramped.
  • dosh, n. money
  • grot, ScEng. grime. Something unpleasant, dirty, or of poor quality.
  • torus, n. a surface or solid formed by rotating a closed curve, especially a circle, around a line that lies in the same plane but does not intersect it (e.g., like a ring-shaped doughnut).

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