One of the things that makes you decide whether you want to read a book is a look at the first page. Depending on the kind of book you like, you might be hoping for an atmospheric initial paragraph, or a lush description evoking the flavour of the story inside. Or it might be something startling happening before you reach the bottom of the page, or a statement by one of the characters. Whatever it is, if it makes you want to turn over you are hooked. A good author will do just that. Ken MacLeod is one of these.
Descent opens with the Ryan, the narrator, lying in bed and watching his ex-fiancée.
Immediately, you want to know how and why. This is skilful storytelling.
Not too many years ago, there was a fascination with UFOs (remember The X-files?). People claimed to have been abducted by aliens and intimately examined. These flying saucers replaced angels is modern mythology. In the fifties, many readers of Science Fiction secretly hoped these stories were true and they would be given the chance to make contact with these space-faring explorers. Admittedly, most of these were teenage boys and most of them grew out of this phase. Some went on to become scientists to understand the flaws in their earlier beliefs or to write proper science fiction. With the UFO phenomenon, most of the sightings can be explained, a few cannot.
Most of the book is Ryan’s narrative, leading up to the initial observations. As a first person narrator it is reasonable to consider the veracity of what he remembers. The novel proper, begins with a childhood encounter. Like all teenagers, Ryan and his best friend Calum, push the boundaries. They go where they shouldn’t. On this occasion, a flying object comes it them out of the fog. It leaves a scorch mark on the hillside, them in the middle of the scorch mark, unhurt but grubby, and a missing hour and a half. Young minds are impressionable and Ryan’s later UFO encounter – being lifted up to a space ship – could be explained as a dream or a hallucination. As a result of the encounter, Ryan becomes interested in the UFO phenomenon, reading whatever he can about it, an obsession that lasts until he discovers girls.
The second part takes Ryan through university, the third begins when Calum invites him to the wedding reception of distant relative. It is here that Ryan meets Gabrielle, the ex-fiancée.
While a lot of the narrative could be regarded as the fanciful imaginings of the narrator as he tries to find explanations to events and the behaviour of other that don’t fit neatly in to the traditional norms. At the same time, if you trust his recollection of events, there are strangenesses that are not explainable by ordinary means. One of these is Baxter who turns up soon after the encounter on the hill claiming to be from the church and concerned about his spiritual welfare. He turns up again at university. His claim to be the chaplain is refuted by the real one who he meets at a party. That is not the last Ryan is to see of Baxter. He is fundamental the outcome of later events.
As Ryan matures the time-line moves with him from the present into a future with new technologies, some of which are covered in secrecy. MacLeod, has skilfully blended the UFO mystery and conspiracy theory, weaving intrigue through Ryan’s life. In the end, he doesn’t tell the reader what is happening but leaves sufficient clues for them to form their own opinions. This is an excellent example of the subtle SF novel, in which characters have very human passions and expectations. They are touched by the unknown but don’t let it submerge them. Recommended.