Details: (c) Ken MacLeod 1996; Pub Orbit 2002; ISBN 1-84149-060-1
Verdict: The Stone Canal is a good story which is also thought-provoking.
Reasons for reading it: I read it just over 3 years ago, and promised myself at the time that I would read it again, because I enjoyed it but found a lot of it confusing.
How it came into my hands: lethargic_man gave it to me for my birthday in 2002, when we first started going out.
I liked The Stone Canal a lot better on second reading. Or maybe I've just forgotten how much I liked it, but since I did resolve to reread it I think I must have expected to like it better a second time. I think part of it is that I'm more familiar with the sort of modern SF ideas that it's playing with than I was when I first read it, and partly that it's a very, very dense book and a second reading allowed me to get much more of a handle on it. Also, I think it benefitted from the fact that I'm rationing my reading at the moment, so I read it rather slower than I usually read, and therefore took time to absorb the ideas and emotional impact.
But yeah, on this reading, just about everything about it worked for me, and very strongly. It's a very exciting story which never drops the pace, and the background and world-building and general incluing are just there in a way that you don't even notice you're learning about how things work. But on stopping to think, it's really clever world-building. The characterization is superb, which is what carries such a complex book and motivates the reader to put in the effort needed to follow all the tangled threads and clever ideas.
The first four or five chapters are absolutely superlative. I think the later part of the book is slightly weaker, perhaps because it just gets too confusing and tangled and there are too many ideas to see the underlying structure clearly. But the whole is still very, very good. I generally don't get on well with non-linear narrative, but the structure of The Stone Canal is one of the things that really succeed about it. At first it feels as if it's just jumping about randomly between the far future on New Mars and 1970s Glasgow, but as the connections gradually become clear it all falls together in a really impressive way. And the structure is not just clever for its own sake, but an important part of what makes the book so exciting, because it allows information to be revealed at just the right pace. There are loads of incredibly cool twists, which work precisely because it's non-linear.
And the political and SF speculation is very, very cool. The book is almost never didactic, you just pick up all these cool ideas and philosophical questions almost without noticing, while reading a very exciting story. There are still some bits I don't entirely understand, but that is almost a good thing because it gives me a reason to read it a third time. Actually, I liked it so much on this reading that I think it's up there with the books I reread just because they're that good.