Denver Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Club

Cosmonaut Keep US book cover Cosmonaut Keep (2000 UK, 2001 USA)
Beginning of The Engines of Light series

2002 Hugo Award nominee

US Tor science fiction paperback (left)
cover art by Stephan Martiniere
336 pages

UK Orbit paperback (right)
396 pages
Cosmonaut Keep UK book cover

From the back cover of the US edition:
       Matt Cairns is a 21st century outlaw programmer who takes on the shady jobs no one else will touch.  Against his better judgment, he accepts an assignment to crack the Marshall Titov, a top secret orbital station operated by the European Space Agency.  But what Matt will discover there will propel him on an extraordinary and quite unexpected journey.
       Gregor Cairns is an exobiology student and descendant of one of Terra Nova's first families.  Hopelessly infatuated with a lovely young trader's daughter, he is unaware that his research partner, Elizabeth, has fallen in love with him.  Together, Gregor and Elizabeth confront the great work his family began three centuries earlier -- to rediscover the secret of interstellar travel.
       Ranging from a gritty near future Earth to a distant alien world, Cosmonaut Keep is contemporary science fiction at its highest level, a visionary epic filled with daring individuals seeking a place for themselves in a vast, complex, and enigmatic universe.

Read for group discussion on June 26, 2002

Amy's summary:  Ken MacLeod - Cosmonaut Keep
(Warning! Some spoilers)

Cosmonaut Keep tells two stories in alternating chapters, one of a near future Earth (around 2050), and another of a more distant indeterminate future on a planet called Mingulay.  Both plots feature protagonists with the last name of Cairns, politics, and extraterrestrials.  The relationship between the two stories, unexplained at first, eventually becomes clear.

Matt Cairns is a software project manager, who coordinates AIs (Artificial Intelligences).  He lives in Scotland, which is part of the communist controlled European Union (E.U.).  He takes on questionable jobs, such as hacking face recognition programs.  Jadey, Matt's American girlfriend, runs ops for the resistance in the Former United Kingdom (F.U.K.).  She has acquired a datadisk from a Russian military officer with blueprints traceable to the European Space Agency (ESA) exploration station, Marshal Titov, where contact has been made with extraterrestrial life.  The secret blueprints, which contain plans to build a flying saucer, get Jadey in trouble, and propel Matt on an adventure that leads him to Area 51, and eventually, with test pilot Camila, to the space station.

On the planet Mingulay, in the port city of Kyohvic, Gregor Cairns works with fellow scientists Elizabeth Harkness and the reptilian alien saur Salasso studying marine biology.  On the cliffs above town there's a ancient pre-human castle, the so called Cosmonaut Keep.  The cosmonaut families are descendants of the last known colonists from Earth.  Spaceships travel to other planets such as Nova Terra and Croatan, but they are controlled by extraterrestrials -- the cryptic kraken, and the saurs who divulge little information.  Humans are mere passengers, and their scientific knowledge seems to be fading.  Gregor doesn't realize that his research partner, Elizabeth, is in love with him.  He becomes smitten with Lydia de Tenebre, the pretty daughter of an interstellar trader from Nova Babylonia.  Lydia and her family have ulterior motives in attracting Gregor's attention.  They are interested in obtaining technology, especially his family's so-called "Great Work", the secret of human navigation between the stars.

MacLeod brings his seemingly separate stories together in an interesting, and satisfying manner.  That Gregor is a descendant of Matt, is no surprise, but how Matt made it to Mingulay is intriguing.  Cosmonaut Keep is book one of The Engines of Light series.

summary written by

How we each rated this book
Dan - Amy 9 stack of books 10   Wow! Don't miss it
8-9  Highly recommended
7    Recommended
5-6  Mild recommendation
3-4  Take your chances
1-2  Below average; skip it
0    Get out the flamethrower!
U    Unfinishable or unreadable
-    Skipped or no rating given
Cheri 7 Barb -
Aaron 6 Cynthia 7
Jackie - Ron 7

Aaron's Commentary  Ken MacLeod – Cosmonaut Keep

Cosmonaut Keep contains a host of clever and interesting ideas.  MacLeod writes of computer technology with authority, and describes the future in such convincing detail that he manages a high degree of verisimilitude.  His enigmatic alien life forms are intriguing – I especially like the idea that our solar system is already teeming with alien life that we have not yet noticed.  MacLeod even ties in UFOs and other paranormal lore believably, although perhaps without enough humor to make it worth the effort.

I found the story flat at times, but that's forgivable given that Cosmonaut Keep is the first volume in a new sequence of novels, and MacLeod busies himself with introducing a lot of story elements that I presume will come into play in later installments.  More difficult to overlook is that the characters are bland.  None of them have the feel of three-dimensional people.  MacLeod’s presentation of romantic involvements is clumsy at best.  The worst offender is Gregor Cairns, one of the two protagonists.  His only character trait that I can discern is that he is a twit, and his potential love triangle held not the slightest interest for me.

MacLeod is a capable ideas man, and a welcome addition to the field of science fiction as such, but my impression is that he has yet to develop the skill and artistry that I have admired in some of the other current British authors such as Iain M. Banks and Adam Roberts.

What do you think? Your comments are welcome. Please send them to

Ken MacLeod (1954-    ) is a UK science fiction writer. He lives in Scotland.

1996 Prometheus Award for The Star Faction
1998 Prometheus Award for The Stone Canal
(The Prometheus Society awards are for Best Libertarian Science Fiction Novel)
British SF Association Award for Best Novel The Sky Road
2006 Prometheus Award for Learning the World

The Fall Revolution series:
-- The Star Fraction (1995)
-- The Stone Canal (1996)
-- The Cassini Division (1998)
-- The Sky Road (1999)
The SFBC omnibus edition The Fall Revolution contains the first three books.

The Engines of Light series:
-- Cosmonaut Keep (2000)
-- Dark Light (2001)
-- Engine City (2002)

Other books:
-- Newton's Wake: A Space Opera (2004)
-- Learning the World: A Novel of First Contact (2005)
-- The Highway Men (2006)
-- The Execution Channel (2007)
-- The Night Sessions (2008)

The Human Front (2001) is a SF novella about aliens tampering with history.

The Web: Cydonia
(UK 1998) is a book for young adults, part of a series of linked novels, each written by a different author.

Wikipedia - Ken MacLeod
Locus Online Ken MacLeod interview (2000)
Salon Books: An engine of anarchy - MacLeod Interview (1999)
Ken MacLeod Cosmonaut Keep - an infinity plus double review
NESFA review: Cosmonaut Keep by Ken MacLeod
BookLoons SF Reviews Cosmonaut Keep
Ken MacLeod Dark Light - an infinity plus double review
Ken MacLeod The Stone Canal - an infinity plus review
Ken MacLeod The Cassini Division - an infinity plus review
Article written by Ken MacLeod: SF after the Future Went Away
The Early Days of a Better Nation - Ken MacLeod's blog

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