WARNING: I generally try to avoid spoilers, but it’s hard to discuss this book without talking about the ending. I try to be vague about details, though.
In hindsight, this is a very odd book. However, it’s not at all odd while you’re reading it. In fact, for most of its length, it races along like a present-day spy thriller. It starts with a nuclear explosion at RAF Leuchars, and then rolls on with a series of explosions at major UK industrial installations.
Were they terror attacks? Opening shots in a global conflict? Peace campaigner Roisin Travis is covertly taking photos of the RAF base when she sees a strange device being unloaded. Just then, she gets a text from her brother Alec, who is serving in the military in Kurdistan, warning her to leave immediately. She manages to escape the blast, and goes on the run, fearful that the security services will think she had something to do with it. Her father, James Travis, appears to be a standard software contractor, but is actually a covert agent for the French government. He, too, receives an alert message, and goes on the run.
At this point, the chase is on, against a backdrop of global fear and escalating international tension. The UK security services stage a hunt for Roisin and James. An American agency goes to work spreading disinformation about the incidents, while conspiracy web site owner Mark Dark tries to filter out the “real” truth about the device that Roisin saw.
The book covers a lot of the same themes as Charles Stross does in Halting State: the surveillance society, intelligence operations in a highly networked world, and a fundamental uncertainty about who your actual enemy is. Along the way, there are only small hints that give away that the story is science fiction. Although you could easily read it as being set in present-day Britain, it takes place in a slightly altered timeline–one where Al Gore won the 2000 presidential election, but where the 9/11 attacks still happened, and the world still went up in the flames of war. Also, there are nuggets of cosmological speculation that you probably wouldn’t see in a mainstream thriller, as well as the suggestion that some of the conspiracy theories about flying saucers and death rays might actually be real.
But you don’t get the full science-fictional pay-off until right at the very end. Like, in the last eight pages. And this is what makes the book so odd. It ends with an enormous revelation…and a political joke. It’s almost like one of Asimov’s short stories that ends with a terrible pun. All of the hard-boiled personal tension and international brinkmanship, is rendered nearly obsolete when MacLeod zooms out and shows you the bigger picture.
That’s not to say that the ending is bad; it’s just unexpected. When I finally closed the cover (after staying up to 2am to finish it), part of me went “aargh” and wanted to throw the book down in disgust at the sharp left turn, while another part went “wow” and marvelled at the sense of wonder the ending provokes. And now, a week or so later, I still have mixed feelings. But I think that the power of surprise will ensure that The Execution Channel will stick with me for longer than if it had had a conventional linear climax.