Turbulent Years Ahead: An Interview with Ken MacLeod
Ken MacLeod
08.02.1954 - Present
"Science fiction is a laboratory of thought experiments."

Jerome Winter interviews Ken MacLeod

Turbulent Years Ahead: An Interview with Ken MacLeod

February 24th, 2014 reset - +

KEN MACLEOD IS a leading light of the British Boom of contemporary science fiction. He is the author of fourteen critically acclaimed and popular novels, achieving a level of literary sophistication and serious fun matched only by the sheer political complexity of his work. His Fall Revolution series (1995-1999) charts a crisis of global capitalism and the techno-cultural formations that spring up in the ensuing chaos. The Engines of Light trilogy (2000-2002) has become a touchstone of the SF sub-genre movement known as New Space Opera.  In The Night Sessions (2008), reviewed previously on LARB by Paul McAuley, a Faith War between U.S./Western European alliance and Islamic Middle-Eastern countries has been settled through an exchange of tactical nuclear weapons. In Intrusion (2012), reviewed by Caroline McCracken-Flesher on LARB, an Orwellian surveillance society installs sensors on pregnant women to prevent smoking or drinking; and these women also have to take a eugenic “fix” to eliminate genetic anomalies. His new novel Descent will be released by Orbit on March 6th.

“But there was only a potential, an aching longing, as long as the reality of space development was turned against itself, literally turned inward by Space Defense. The US/UN held that high ground, cynically supervising the planet’s broken blocs. The Peace Process: divide-and-rule replicating downward in a fractal balkanization of the world."

- The Star Fraction (1995)

Jerome Winter: Do you see your political science fiction as emanating from a historical context that has both local and global dimensions?

Ken MacLeod: I see it very much as responding to particular historical contexts. The Fall Revolution books came out of the late 1980s and early 1990s, with all kinds of echoes of the fall of the Soviet bloc, the break-up of Yugoslavia, and the first Gulf War. I was thinking about these globally significant developments through the more local and less significant lens of my own earlier experiences on the British left, and tying to triangulate them with two kinds of radical analysis: historical materialism and classical liberalism. What the global and local seemed to have in common was the loss of any sense of common interest and common cause, and a descent into nationalism and identity politics all of which were supervised and policed from above – sometimes literally -- by state and supra-state power. In the books that's portrayed as symptomatic of a descent into barbarism, and come to think of it I still think that!

With these four books done and the theme more or less done to death, I wrote some space operas until my anger at the way the world was going got the better of me again. When I returned to writing political SF set in the near future, I made a very deliberate choice to focus on particular issues – the War on Terror for The Execution Channel, religion and secularism for The Night Sessions – and to do it from the point of view of characters who really didn't have much in the way of a big picture, or if they did for it to be one that was shown within the story to be partial at best. In The Restoration Game I revisited the fall of the Soviet Union, with a narrator who is at first a piece in a game played by others, and works her way up to becoming to some extent a player, but – as we see when we pull back at the end – is still part of a larger game. Which, as it happens, was something like my own experience. A scary amount of detail in The Restoration Game comes out of incidents in my own life and from odd nuggets of real history. The novel was originally going to be set in the indefinite present of most mainstream fiction, but in the very days that I was trying to work out how and why my heroine had to travel to the imaginary border statelet that I had vaguely modelled on South Ossetia, the Georgians attacked South Ossetia and the Russians went in. So I had to take this into account, and I suddenly had the idea of that actual war being the time and the occasion of her journey, and everything clicked into place.

“I can’t really imagine war. I can imagine having to fight some swarm of zombie machines or snarling horde of posthuman fast-burn wreckage or whatever, but not two or more actual human societies actually fighting each other. I’m aware that people did that, before history, before the Moon, but it seems irrational. One side would have to believe they had something to gain from destroying or damaging the other, which just doesn’t make sense…”

- Learning the World (2005)

JW: Do you claim any literary ancestry with pulp space-opera practitioners by the likes of E.E. “Doc” Smith, A.E. van Vogt, Edmond Hamilton, or Henry Kuttner, or is the engagement with space-opera in your fiction more diffuse than questions of “influence”?

KM: I don’t remember being influenced by or even particularly taken with any of the writers you mention – except Kuttner, and more for the witty short stories than for the space operas. Obviously I had the Golden Age SF megatext pretty firmly imprinted in my impressionable adolescent brain, thanks to Asimov and Heinlein and particularly to the Out of This World series of anthologies for young readers, which reprinted SF short stories from the magazines and were in lots of British school and public libraries. On space opera specifically, I remember being blown away by Charles L. Harness's The Paradox Men, in the 1967 Four Square paperback with an introduction by Brian Aldiss classifying it as “Widescreen Baroque”, a mode that struck both me and Iain Banks as something to aspire to; and by Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger! James Blish's Cities in Flight also made a big impression. Another early influence was The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison, which I didn't realize until much later was written against the grain of genre expectation and as an immanent critique of space opera. I read it completely naively and thought it was great. Years later I made the mistake of saying to Mike Harrison something you should never say to a writer: “I really like your early work.” Somehow he forgave me.

But when I started writing space opera with the Engines of Light books, I wanted to set up a framework that would serve as an adventure playground for lots of related stories. The examples I had in mind were Iain M. Banks's Culture novels, and Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series. Instead of wormholes or FTL I had the light-speed drive, and instead of Minds and drones I had the giant squid navigators and the little Grey aliens. The basic framework came partly from speculations by a Scottish SF writer and fan, the late Chris Boyce, about how ET presence might already be lurking in the asteroid belt, and partly out of memories of a lunchtime pub conversation with Iain back in 1980, when we tried to come up with vaguely plausible-sounding rationalizations for as much of the UFO mythos as we could. We reckoned that the little Grey 'aliens' had to have evolved on Earth, most likely from some small bipedal dinosaur missing from the fossil record – and why were they missing? Obviously because they were taken away and uplifted by whatever flew the huge cigar-shaped motherships, and these were so big because they were piloted by giant squids in huge aquaria, hence also the flashing lights on the outside like cephalopod chromatophores, and the squid in turn had been uplifted by the real ET aliens, etc.  Unfortunately by the time I was writing the third book I had become self-conscious about the inherent ridiculousness of the premise, and brought the whole thing to as sombre and final a halt as I could manage in a firing-squad fusilade and claimed I had committed trilogy.

I then went on to writing one-off novels, using and throwing away settings for Newton's Wake and Learning the World – though I've used the setting of the latter for a couple of short stories, each of which did  well in and got into anthologies.

“The Cassini Division was the Solar Union’s front-line force, our collective fist in the enemy’s face. In our classless society it was the closest thing to an elite; in our anarchy, the nearest we came to a state; in our commonwealth, it held the greatest share of riches…The resources it controlled could have bought everything on Earth, in the age when that world was owned — and it still stood ready for the exchange, to give as good as it got, to pit our human might against the puny wrath of gods."

- The Cassini Division (1998)                                       

JW: Beyond their comparable sophisticated literary strategies and devices — the ironically distanced narratives, the questionable protagonists, the multiple time streams, the mundane description brimming with both uneventful and suspense-driven detail, the ingeniously witty texture of your prose — both your and Banks’s work seems ultimately likeminded, fiercely engaged with contemporary global capitalism in an era dominated by technological rupture. Would you consider this comparison and contrast between unique writers a fair characterization?

KM: It seems fair enough. Iain's most direct engagement with the present was in his so-called mainstream novels. (Farah Mendlesohn recently argued in conversation that they were actually SF set in the present, which illuminates something about them that is often missed by mainstream readers and critics but that SF readers caught onto from the start.) They became I think more conjunctural as he developed as a writer: you can imagine the stories happening around about the time they were written. They can speak to us for a long time but each of them nails a moment in history, albeit as experienced by people who may not be central to or typical of that moment. With the Culture books he was trying to do something very different: to imagine a utopia that people would actually like to live in, his starting point very sensibly being to imagine one he'd like to live in himself. The external threats were his answer to the problem that no matter how exciting a utopia might be to live in, it would be very dull to write about (unless you basically wrote a novel about people's normal relationships within it, about love and heartbreak or whatever, in which case as Iain often pointed out, why not just write a mainstream novel?) I was a lot more interested in the science-fictional possibilities of near-future history than Iain was, especially as unlike him I was convinced that in historical materialism I had a handle on it. The collapse in the Fall Revolution isn't that of neoliberalism, it's that of the entirety of a global capitalism that for various reasons has no opposition growing inside it. So you have a transition that's more like the one from antiquity to feudalism than that from feudalism to capitalism. That rather gloomy speculation intrigued me from my late teens onward – from the moment I read the phrase “the common ruin of the contending classes” in the Communist Manifesto. I do try to bring a more hopeful perspective to what little actual political activity I now take part in, however.

“Iain explained that the Culture was his idea of utopia, in which advanced technology, inexhaustible resources and friendly artificial intelligence made possible a society in which nobody had to work and there was no need for money or a separate state apparatus... But, I went on, the Culture on his telling didn’t seem to have come about through class struggle, revolution, and the rest. How, then, could it have come about, given that Iain was as skeptical as I was about the likelihood of such a society being handed down by benevolent rulers from above? By way of answer, Iain pointed to his pocket calculator. He said that on his last vacation job, on a construction site, one of the full-time workers had borrowed it and worked his way through a stack of wage slips, to discover that he and his mates weren't getting all the pay they were due. The site workers had taken the result to the management, who duly if perhaps reluctantly shelled out the back pay that was owed. That, Iain said, was how he'd envisaged the Culture coming about.”

- “Use of Calculators” (2013)

JW: On your fascinating blog The Early Days of a Better Nation, you express anxiety over the possibility of a sovereign Scottish state:  “Most of the parties at Holyrood are in favour of a nanny-state smoking ban, restrictions on sectarian parades (restrictions whose inevitable consequence, civil liberties aside, would be to exacerbate sectarianism), and making it a crime to carry a penknife” (“Independence”).  Do you feel the impending Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 has reinvigorated a sense of Scottish nationalism in science-fictional arts and letters?

KM: Scottish SF is too small a sample to draw any significant conclusion from. Charles Stross and I, for example, have different voting intentions in the referendum, but we agree as near-future SF writers that it'll be a relief to have it decided one way or the other.  In arts and letters more generally there is certainly a strong pro-independence current, which includes many of the most respected writers and artists in Scotland. As you point out this began under the Thatcher and Major governments as a cultural revival – that after all is where the name of my blog comes from -- but it has become stronger and more political in recent years and months, and no doubt will become more so the closer we get to the independence referendum.

 Present-day Scottish nationalism is very largely civic and political rather than nationalist in the traditional sense, and in its cultural aspect has been much more a matter of looking to the future with hope rather than to the past with grievance. You can get a vivid picture of how it developed over the past fifty years from James Robertson's 2010 novel And the Land Lay Still. And Stone Voices by Neal Ascherson gives a good non-fiction account of the years between the two Scottish devolution referenda, of 1979 and 1997, drawing on his own influential and informed journalism of those decades. Ascherson brought to a wider audience Tom Nairn's argument that Scottish independence was necessary to dislodge the supposed archaic establishment at the core of the British state, and some version of this has become the received wisdom of a large part of Scotland's cultural intelligentsia and a section of the Scottish Left. The big problem with this is that it's not true. The British state is not some living fossil but highly modern, alert, flexible and fast-evolving. One might have many criticisms of Scottish and Welsh devolution and the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland, and I do, but they certainly don't demonstrate an incapacity for deep-going political reform, obviously in the interest of conserving what can be conserved of the British state.

So the problem then becomes that if the civic and democratic case is without merit, and the economic case is even less convincing, the only real basis for independence is nationalist sentiment, and you can see that heating up and you can see the pro-independence left increasingly falling into nationalist language. It takes a lot to shock me about the left but I admit I'm a little startled to hear professed international socialists say “we” on a public platform in a political context when they mean “Scots”. If Scotland were an oppressed nation that might be excusable. Scotland is not an oppressed nation. And for socialists to identify with the nation is not going to stand them in good stead in the future, particularly in the unlikely event of a Yes vote, when they'll be facing a Scottish government that has many authoritarian and centralizing reflexes and strong reasons to promote national unity over class division in the no doubt turbulent years ahead.

At the cultural level I see no excuse for nationalism, absolutely none. Scottish culture is flourishing, and it's flourishing inside the Union. And the national culture of Britain is incredibly assimilative. To be a little provocative about it, I'd say that at the level of unthinking reflex it takes one generation for an immigrant population to stop being regarded as foreign, because that's the time it takes for their children to grow up with a local accent. They might still be subjected to racism or religious prejudice, not to mention class exploitation, but they're regarded as British. Breaking the British state into national parts puts that real positive feature of British nationality at risk, to put it no more strongly. As I said in an essay in the collection Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence, I dread the prospect of an English national awakening. I like England perfectly well as it is, asleep.

But I have a lot of friends who disagree with me, including my late friend Iain Banks. And like his, their support for independence usually doesn't come from nationalism. It comes from a belief that Scotland's non-Tory majority will always be stymied by Tory victories in England or by Labour only winning by taking the concerns of swing voters in so-called Middle England into account.  There's a current slogan from the Yes side: 'No more Tory governments. Ever.' I can see the appeal. There are strong points to be made against it, but it would take more space than there is on this page to make them.  I have a joke that I should do a show on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer billed as the last left-wing Unionist novelist in Scotland.

“Reid was a communist, I a libertarian; but he had a prickly independence of mind, a dogged tendency to worry at difficulties in the doctrines the sect espoused. I sometimes suspected I had too easy a skepticism, too catholic a confidence that my shaky pile of books by Proudhon and Tucker, Herbert and Spencer, Robert Heinlein and Robert Anton Wilson was building up to a reliable launch-tower of the mind.”

-           The Stone Canal (1996)

JW: Some critics contend The Cassini Division effectively excuses, even glamorizes, genocide. While conceding that the novel is deeply invested in depicting the Solar Union as an inherently flawed, critical utopia, I want to contend that your radical cultural politics necessitates viewing neoliberalism as a credible threat to revolutionary desire. Would you agree?

KM: I’m not sure at all that neoliberalism is a credible threat to revolutionary desire. If neoliberalism could reliably fulfil people’s needs, I wouldn’t have any great objection to it. Instead, it creates needs it can’t satisfy and it often fails to meet more basic needs in ways that are very obvious even if unevenly distributed in time as well as in space. A system that throws us repeatedly into wars and slumps is not something we can put up with forever, though maybe we can put up with it for a longer time than some of us would hope.

The Outwarders were inspired by the real-life Extropians, some of whom were quite blatant about wanting to become posthumans of godlike power who would care not a jot for humanity. Well, if such entities ever did come into being, the proper response of humanity would be to do unto them before they do unto us. Calling that “genocide” is at best unhelpful. It's more like the “total war” strategies of General Sherman or Bomber Harris. If anyone wants to analyze that in a non-literal way and look for political subtext or whatever, they're welcome to go right ahead!

“       ‘But,’ protested Campbell, “surely in all the world there are qualified minister whose sermons you can listen to? And here in Scotland, of all places, there must be a remnant!’

         Livingston looked him square in the eye. ‘The Churches have all compromised!’ he cried. ‘Here, and everywhere!’ His voice took on a sing-song tone as he continued. ‘Compromises, compromises, compromises! With the secular state, with the Papists, with the enthusiasts and Congregationalists and modernists and dispensationalists, and with’ — here his voice took on a particular vehemence — the sectarians.”

- The Night Sessions  (2008)

JW: In The Night Sessions, Scotland now has a Secularist society but the novel gradually reveals that the Faith Wars were financially supported by Christian religious fundamentalists who also create things like creationist parks where Adam and Eve animatronics walk next to dinosaurs. In dramatic contrast to the theocratic (but green) society of The Sky Road, The Night Sessions seems to suggest a post-secular, enlightened atheist culture that mystifies its religious heritage to disastrous effect? Do you feel religion still plays an important role in modern cultural politics or are we increasingly post-secular?

KM: I think both. Britain is in many respects a rapidly secularising society. A few days ago I was in Greenock, the town where I grew up, and I turned down a side street to see the church my father preached in. It had been converted into a second-hand furniture store. Asking inside, I was told that many former church buildings in Greenock, including this one, were now owned by a local carpet sales company. That's a big change in a few decades. At the same time, politicians and the media pay attention when religious leaders speak on public issues. It's noticeable that they get a more respectful hearing when they talk about poverty and injustice than when they talk about private morality. The Scottish Parliament recently legalised same-sex marriage by a majority that was as overwhelming as the majority of religious voices against it. The Parliament just sailed over the heads of the churches and mosques.

From what I can see, a similar process of decline is going on in the United States, though more slowly and from a higher current level of belief, and this is why the issue is far more contentious there. So you get this militant, in-your-face New Atheism together with appeals to religion in politics that both seem quite strange to people in Britain and Europe. The UK has an established church, in fact it has two, but hardly anyone is interested in a politician's religious beliefs or lack of them. I was actually surprised by some of the names on the Wikipedia list of UK atheist politicians – that's how small an issue it is.

The book came out of that New Atheist moment around the middle of the decade – I read Sam Harris's The End of Faith on the plane back from Boskone (a big annual SF convention in Boston) in 2006, and I read the famous books by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and the less famous one by Michel Onfray in 2007. And I'd already been struck by some proposals for radical secularization that had been put forward by the Iranian revolutionary Mansoor Hekmat:

"If the law required religions to register as private foundations or profit making companies, pay taxes, face inspection and obey various laws, including labour laws, children's rights, laws controlling the prohibition of sexual discrimination, defamation, libel and incitement as well as laws protecting animals, etc. and if the "religion industry" was treated like the "tobacco industry," only then would we approach a principled position on religion and the legal scope of its expression in society."

Now, that's deeply illiberal and not something I would endorse for a moment, but I had it in mind when I imagined the Second Enlightenment for the novel. That and a more liberal variant suggested by Dennett, where any profession of religion by a politician would come to be seen to call in question his or her sound judgment and good manners.

The idea behind The Night Sessions was that the wars we are in, which seem to me fairly straightforwardly explainable by economic and strategic considerations, would in retrospect be blamed on religion (on all sides) if they ended in defeat and disaster. So you get a violent, convulsive surge of the processes of secularization that in other circumstances would take much longer. This was a bit of world-building rationalization for what struck me as a really cool idea: Presbyterian terrorists! So I had to come up with a society that could push boring respectable Presbyterians into terrorism, or at least could believe that it had.

One small quibble about your question: I never thought of the society in The Sky Road as theocratic. There are no clergy in it. Admittedly it does now strike me as odd that everyone seems to accept what they call the rational and natural religion. Maybe I was playing with the idea that Thomas Paine was right about the obvious appeal of Deism, at least for the society of enlightened, independent-minded farmers and artisans that he seems to have considered ideal. And to be fair, there are peasants in Transylvania who have been Unitarians since the Reformation, so it's not entirely far-fetched.

"The economy and the environment are in such a precarious balance… it's like we're riding a unicycle on a tightrope over a flaming abyss while juggling chainsaws. The last thing you want in that situation is some clown bounding along behind you and contesting the saddle. So . . . the question becomes one of maintaining control over the underlying population."

- Intrusion (2012)

JW: Do the concerns of Intrusion over surveillance, invasive health-care bureaucracy, and governmental curtailing of personal liberty, transfer over or seem to impact your new novel Descent at all? What can you tell us about your new novel?

KM: It's set in a nearer future than Intrusion, and it has a quite different focus and feel. Surveillance is omnipresent, but kids grow up with it and have work-arounds. It's in many ways a brighter world than the one in Intrusion, although a few grimmer historical events have happened in the back-story, and at the beginning we're all still stuck in a long economic crisis with accompanying social unrest. In the run-up to writing of each my recent novels I've tried to pitch it to myself as an SF variant of another genre: spy story for The Execution Channel, police procedural/Scottish crime for The Night Sessions, what I mentally called “chick-lit technothriller” for The Restoration Game, and “genomics Aga saga” for Intrusion. My genre model for Descent was bloke-lit – that's basically first-person, self-serving, rueful confessional by a youngish man looking back on youthful stupidities, and who has learned better but given and taken a lot of emotional damage along the way.

The story was sparked by three unrelated ideas that I smashed together. One was a report in New Scientist of how a population of mice turned out to have speciated without anyone noticing, least of all the mice: the scientists only realized what had happened when they found that certain pairs of mice were infertile together but the individual mice were fertile in other pairings, and there were actually two reproductively isolated populations there, in other words two species. The article asked in passing if this could happen or even have happened already in human populations and if so, how would we know? The second came from a nature program about ecologists doing capture-and-release surveys on small animals. The animals were picked up, weighed, measured, probed, maybe implanted with a tracking device, and then put back in the grass. I suddenly thought that from the animals’ point of view it was an alien abduction experience. And the third was Mark Pilkington’s fascinating book on the UFO mythos, Mirage Men, which argues – and gives some evidence --- that the whole idea of a government cover-up of secret UFO knowledge is itself government disinformation sustained and refined over many decades. 

The narrator Ryan Sinclair’s problems begin one day when he's sixteen, out for a walk with a friend, Calum, in the hills above the small town on the west coast of Scotland where he grew up. Both lads get knocked down by a strange light from the sky. Only Ryan goes on to have an alien abduction experience, which he believes is some kind of hallucination. Calum’s explanation of why he himself didn't have such an experience only makes the situation more troubling. Then both lads' families are visited by a sinister man in a black suit, and Ryan becomes obsessed with UFO conspiracy theories. Meanwhile a major global financial reform has been passed literally overnight and suddenly the economy has begun to pick up, and nobody is entirely sure what's going on. But it's only when Ryan falls in love with a young woman who is distantly related to Calum that his life starts to get seriously weird.

So, basically, Descent is about flying saucers, hidden races, and Antonio Gramsci's concept of passive revolution, all set in a tale of Scottish middle class family life in and after the Great Depression of the 21st Century. Almost mainstream fiction, really.