Ken MacLeod's The Star Fraction is post-partial apocalypse novel, that is placed within the cyberpunk genre. It is the first of three standalone novels within the Fall Revolution four-book series. The books are stand alone enough that they can be read in any order. Both The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal within the series won the Prometheus Award, and the third novel, The Cassini Division was a Nebula finalist.
Ken MacLeod is a Scottish science fiction writer. He may not be super famous, but has been successful enough to be published for 15 years with Star Fraction being his first work. I first heard about this series from an interview of him at Bloggingheads TV.
The novel is a set after a series of wars which have partially collapsed society. The larger countries have tended to breakdown into a (overtly) Libertarian world of small groups and governing entities held together by personal loyalty and contracts.
The author notes in a (much later) Introduction to the American Edition, that the novel is exploring the rather scary ground that both Ludwig Von Mises' arguments about the necessity of private property to a working economy, and the Marxist concept that capitalist free markets were inherently unstable. After noting the vindication of Mises:
Unfortunately, there's no reason why the Economic Calculation Argument [Mises] and the Materialist Conception of History [Marxism] couldn't both be true. What if capitalism is unstable, and socialism is impossible.
At the point he wrote this, he only knew of the collapse of East Block Communism. The current collapse of our financial system (and don't start spouting silly Republican talking points about FANNIE and FREDDIE- they are a disaster- but there part of the disaster has not even played out yet) would seem to be a reinforcing argument.
The main character, Moh Kohn, is an old style Trotskyite Communist living in England who is also a mercenary for hire. And as the blurb on the dust jacket notes; It is a "balkanized twenty-first century, where the peace process is deadlier than war." On some levels it is still a very civilized new world, but one with narrower margin for error. There is a fair amount of politics, but also a fair amount of action. It has a little of the flavor of post World War 1 Germany with all the various warring (literally) political groups: updated to a cyberpunk sensibility. You could definetly see the young wanna-be Adolf marching around somewhere in this mess.
Kohn has a very efficient "smart gun." He talks to the gun, and the gun talks back. The gun is in effect an AI cpu with a firearm attached. Written in 1995, MacLeod has an Internet in his world, much like Gibson's, and a fair amount of the action occurs at that level. Computers, are already smart, and getting smarter. Eventually another war is going to break out, and the computer AI - singularity is going to be in the mix.
The Star Fraction is one of my favorite books in the science fiction genre. Much like Neal Stephenson's better works it can be a struggle to get through at times, but the payoff in action and ideas tends to be high. "Gun" is one of my favorite characters.
For our descriptive (versus qualitative) assessment. For grittiness, on a 1 to 7 (seven) high, I will put it at a 5. This worlds future is different enough from our own, to loose the usual 1 point that science fiction generally does just by daring to be so speculative. The tendency for all of the pertinent characters to be clustered together in a convenient little novelistic groupings (a sort of Charles Dickens's style coincidences) and fairly nominal actors play over sized roles at too many levels. Cyperpunk is often very unrealistic at some level, but have some of the most realistic portrayals of mayhem at the same time. It is the mayhem that makes me rate it at one point above the median.
A lot of reviewers make a point of commenting on lessons learned. The best of the cyberpunk novels, this one included, illustrate the confusion of reality and fragility of existence. People have all sorts of fancy gear, and all sorts of plans, and people still get blown away. There is a heavy cost, for what is often a very transitive victory. It is a lesson I think a lot of our future-warriors in preparation would do well to take to heart.
It is not a super easy read. There are a lot of plotting groups and people, and there is not always a lot in the way of full info-dumps to explain it all. Some of the tension of the book comes from this slow release of information, so while it is not without purpose, it does make the going a little more difficult. This would normally put it below the mid-point, but the novel is - if not exactly literary- well written. So I will settle on the mid-point of a 4: it just squeaks in.