by Ken MacLeod



256pp/$22.95/July 1999

The Cassini Division

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The Cassini Division /kæsini di’vizhen/ n. 1. an area of Saturn’s rings discovered in 1675 by Jean-Dominique Cassini which appear empty when viewed from Earth due to a lower density of material.  2. The title of the third novel by British author Ken MacLeod.  3.  An elite security force stationed on the Jovian moon Callisto in the novel of the same name.

The Cassini Division is set in a twenty-fourth century socialist society in which mankind has populated the solar system.  There are pockets of resistance to the idea of the Solar Union, some of which, such as the non-cooperatives (non-co) outside of London, are tolerated.  In addition, there are several groups of post-humans, such as the Jovians or the Outwarders, who have downloaded their brains into mechanical creations and are viewed by the Solar Union with xenophobia tending toward genocidal actions. 

The novel, in style and plot, is reminiscent of some of the later writings of Robert Heinlein or John Varley, although without the gender-swapping motifs.  At the same time, the socialist values espoused on the surface (and the chapter titles) have a feeling of H.G. Wells to them.  The novel, however, does not feel like anything Wells would have written.

The main character, Ellen May Ngwethu, is the effective commander of a team working in the Cassini Division.  Told from her viewpoint, the novel moves between her experiences on her current assignment to her memories of a childhood two centuries earlier to the dreams which plague her sleep.  Although MacLeod is careful to make it clear whether Ngwethu is remembering, dreaming, or experiencing the events, the constant time shifts are disjointed and harm the novel’s pacing.

There is a subtle irony running through the novel.  The even when almost the entire society is socialist, there are fears of viruses, which, it becomes evident fairly quickly, are really simply ideas which are anathema to the socialist mentality.  Isambard Malley, a non-co scientist who the Cassini Division needs for his scientific expertise, also offers a non-socialist look at the processes and structures of the society.

The Cassini Division suffers from a lot of info dump.  MacLeod has created a complex society, but in order to make sure the reader understands the society, MacLeod has let his Ngwethu give the reader several history lessons, which, added to the time disjunctures, further damages the pacing of the novel, particularly in the early chapters when MacLeod is attempting to define his characters, provide background information, and get his plot into motion.  In a longer novel, this may not have been a problem, but The Cassini Division is relatively short and the amount of space taken up with Ngwethu’s lectures stands out.  Ngwethu also makes frequent parenthetical asides which further drop the reader out of the story since they are clearly for the reader’s benefit, any person within the actual story knowing, for instance, that c-mail is “chemical mail.”

MacLeod has loaded The Cassini Division with a multitude of ideas, many of which deserve to be explored in a much longer work.  Unfortunately, he seems to be trying to throw everything and the kitchen sink into this one novel with the result that the reader has a sense of overfill, trying to determine which ideas are important and which are just neat ideas.  MacLeod’s methods for presenting these ideas also indicate that he wanted to share all of his background work with his audience rather than trust the audience to extrapolate from a few hints he provides.

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