Ryan Sinclair is a conspiracy expert. He knows all about top secret military experiments that fill the skies with flashing lights, speeding balls of energy and/or balloons while filling the minds of witnesses with sanity-probing hallucinations. When Ryan and his schoolfriend Calum have a strange encounter of their own (by a housing estate in Greenock, Scotland), his childhood obsession with UFOs (now in the past) proves to be no help at all in explaining the experience – the heat, the light, the bending of time. Ryan’s not surprised when he returns to the scene of the encounter that the site has been sealed off by officials and the scorching removed, but he is alarmed by the abduction dream that follows, even more so when he learns that it’s just him, not Calum, who undergoes the not entirely unpleasant encounter. Calum has his own explanation for why he might not have seen the aliens (or Greys – for they fit the ‘bog standard’) and from that moment on Ryan enthusiastically embarks on his descent into confusion, dark corners and suspicion. Luckily, his path is much more entertaining for us than it is for Ryan.
Descent is a hugely enjoyable novel, mingling UFO conspiracy with something rather dystopian. I say rather dystopian because this is a near future world that exists to us only as it is described by our narrator Ryan Sinclair and the problem with Ryan is that he is both blinkered and obsessed. It’s up to the reader to pick up on what is going on in this world – the asides about a Great Depression, warfare, revolution, censorship, even a ban on irony. But none of it is paraded in front of us, instead we see glimpses of the true state of affairs, usually as something for Ryan to ignore in his quest to understand what happened to him. The novel takes us through several years, through Ryan’s college life and then his career choices, his religious curiosity and his relationships, and his place in the world is not only a mystery to him but also to the other characters in his life. It is Ryan, after all, not the UFO encounter, that is at the heart of Descent.
There are mysteries throughout, becoming even more mysterious because it’s Ryan who’s describing them to us. Undoubtedly, something very strange is going on. One man keeps popping up, in a variety of guises, and not even the most sophisticated social media of this age can solve the problem of who the man really is. There is also a scientific mystery surrounding the past, present and future of mankind. Whether Ryan is able to pick up the clues is another matter entirely. Not surprisingly it’s difficult for Ryan because there are a host of conspiracies for him to wade through (some of which may be real, of course) while all the time he tries to live a reasonable life with a woman he loves. He doesn’t make it easy for himself.
In a book as clever yet fun as this is, Ryan is a fascinating main character and an intriguing voice. He’s difficult not to like as he stumbles along, missing the hints thrown out by friends, lovers and potential lovers, following a path to isolation. But Descent is more ambiguous than that. As Ryan develops his theories there is always the distinct possibility that he may well be right and so we follow him on, getting as caught up in it as he wants us to be, while all the time there is a strong sense that his relationships – and the world! – are collapsing around him, unheeded.
This is the first Ken MacLeod novel I’ve read, not a state of affairs to last long after reading this (I have now bought Intrusion). The prose of Descent is lively, rich and colourful. The setting in Scotland leads to some broad accents and I must admit that I did have to take my time whenever Calum opened his mouth. It’s well worth taking that time. Descent is a book to savour – because of Ryan, his hopelessness with women, his dogged determination, his fears (he is haunted by terrible dreams) and his conviction that something is going on and when he discovers what it is, we’re right behind him, hanging on to his every word.