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In the late 1990s, Ken MacLeod rapidly carved out a reputation for a highly politicised perspective on science fiction. His first four novels - The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division, and The Sky Road - writhe with political and technological opportunities and alternatives available to us in the 21st century and beyond. Known as The Fall Revolution, the books inform each other, but form a collective rather than a sequence - rarely sharing major characters and at times in active conflict with each other on what will happen in the next century or two. Though often considered in Britain to have a fairly left-wing stance, two of these books won the Prometheus Award for Libertarian Fiction - before their US publication.
Almost as obvious as his knowledge of politics is the familiarity with Scotland in his books. MacLeod was born in the Hebrides and went to high school and university in south west Scotland. He subsequently spent over a decade in London before returning north in 1990 with his family to reside in Edinburgh. Though he moved to London for postgraduate study, he made the transition from scientist to computer programmer during his time there. The influence of this career is apparent in his work also, in his application of geek ideology and methodology as well as comprehension of the technology and its challenges.
MacLeod is currently writing the last book of the Engines of Light trilogy. The volumes published so far - Cosmonaut Keep and Dark Light - apply his technological understanding, extensive political awareness and increasing storytelling powers in new and different ways.
The location chosen for this interview was the Café Royal in Edinburgh - which a character in his second novel describes as "a veritable people's palace" with its portraits of figures from the history of industry.
Your publication in America came some time after the UK...
They came about when Patrick [Nielsen Hayden - editor at Tor] read The Cassini Division. He had already read The Stone Canal and The Star Fraction but hadn't been sure about them and it was Cassini Division which made him make an offer. They came out in a funny order in America but I think Patrick is quite happy with that because people keep arguing about it.
I suppose it reinforces the idea that there's not a set reading order for the books.
That was my intention. Whether it's been realised I'm not sure because it really does help to read them more or less in the order in which they were published.
I read The Star Fraction first and it read to me like driving my university experience into the future. My experience as a reader was that almost all the characters looked like people I probably met at least once, selling the Socialist Worker or chanting "one solution, revolution," whilst in the latest book Volkov uses the line "educate, agitate, organise". It makes me wonder whether the people in the books are failing to grow up.
That's a very good question. I think that the ones who are are far left political activists - and not all of the characters are by any means. I think it's looking at it too narrowly to look at it in terms of student politics. The assumption in the backstory of The Star Fraction is that there is another mass radicalisation in the west about 20 years before the story starts. So I think that small groups could get much bigger in the future - certainly that's the assumption in the story. The politics of the Army of the New Republic aren't extreme. They're kind of democratic with knobs on.
Volkov is a cynic. I intended to give the impression in the story that he didn't really know quite what he was playing with. He had all this knowledge which he had no doubt gained at some kind of party school way back when - learned it out of books years and years ago - and was using it fairly deliberately to manipulate events and it blew up in his face.
It seemed perhaps in Dark Light, as with The Sky Road, it was the political issues that seemed more your focus; something that is more your interest, or easier to write than the 'pastoral' which you get in both those books.
That's a good point. I wanted to move away from a focus on Left politics and in a way I've done that with Cosmonaut Keep and Dark Light in that there's this rather cynical party apparatus. I thought it was both plausible and a neat idea that the party continued to reproduce itself across a great distance and a great length of time.
There is that interesting parallel with Sky Road in that you've got some of it set in what you could call a pastoral or pre-industrial environment. In the case of Sky Road it's post-industrial. It's hard to say. I certainly enjoyed writing these sections. In The Sky Road in particular, the society of the far-future Scotland was one based on imagining an area that I know reasonably well and the kind of people that I know quite well - not as individuals but as a social type, if you like. A lot of these highlanders are Heinlein's omnicompetent man - they can turn their hand to anything. They're also rather like Marx's doodle about the post-class society where you could hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon and be a critic after dinner without ever being hunter, fisherman or critic. That is literally what these guys are like.
Is that a product of not ever being urbanised, or being able to take what they want from industrial society without actual being part of the cities and the working classes strictly? Because they are outside of that industrial system.
I think there is a lot in that. The highlanders are often people who own a croft, work for wages during the day and go poaching in the evening, and who read a lot. They are people who've never really been hammered into industrial society and therefore have a flexibility. They've got to. Even Adam Smith says how in the Highlands the division of labour is less developed because there is a smaller market. If you have people who are not mangled by the division of labour being part of a much larger market as they are now, they can do all that stuff.
Your description strikes me as something like the ideals of the Australian outback, the idea that you are everything, completely self-reliant.
I think the same kind of environment produces the same kind of people. You get that in rural America as well.
Has rural America ended up with a more right-wing approach though? Or is it not as clear-cut as that? Our views in Europe tend to think of the mainstream in America as being several steps Right of ours and that their extremes tend to be out on the right edge, politically.
I don't have any firsthand experience of people in Oregon or the Pacific North-West or whatever. I remember an interesting programme a few years ago by Louis Theroux, I think it was, where he went and stayed with various people who were involved in the militia movement and all that. This is an English guy talking to people, some of whom are out-and-out Nazi nutters but most of them are anything but. They're just people who want to mind their own business, and to be left alone to do it. A similar kind of interesting angle came from a discussion I had with Charles Platt, a science fiction and science writer who moved from England to America. He had the misfortune to be researching a book on the American self-styled patriotic movement just before the Oklahoma massacre. One of the things he found was that the paranoia that these people out there have about black helicopters and so on is quite well founded in that there really are black helicopters; it's the DEA going looking for marijuana. I think there's some overlap between the hippy remnants and the flight to the countryside and the more right-wing survivalist type angle. To some extent they may have different languages but they often do seem to rub along alright.
The idea that the ends wrap around into a circle?
I think that's often a bit superficial. It's by no means the case that the American counter-culture of the sixties was all left-wing in a conventional sense at all. Look at Ken Kesey, for example; One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and the acid test bus tours and so on, a real centre of that hippy drug culture thing but one of his most famous and successful novels is Sometimes A Great Notion. It's really all about a family that decide to break a strike. They're caught between the loggers and the union basically. That individualism is the thing that links them.
To refocus on the highlands; I don't know if there's exactly a hippy drug culture in the highlands. There are certainly people in the highlands who've moved out from the towns now and who get on, to some extent, with the locals. They often bring a lot of new ideas and new employment and so on to the highlands.
To what extent do they bring a vision of the country idyll with them? How much is purely an escape from the cities?
The thing is you can't escape from the cities. I don't think that's quite what people want. I could rabbit on extensively about the highlands without being very useful or relevant because the highlands are an odd part of Britain anyway. They exist largely as a result of very specific historical circumstances about how the highland society was defeated and then reconstituted itself as part of Scotland. How it got first of all the clearances and then the resistance a generation later to the continuation of the clearances and the crofter's land law which established the right of the crofters to keep their land. That was a kind of massive violation of bourgeois property rights, if you like, in a way countering a previous violation. Then you've got a big state, public sector driven industrial development through things like the Forestry Commission, the Hydroelectric Commission, the road building, the house building, various programmes like that, so the highlands are a very peculiar part of Scotland and by no means a little isolated rural and independent area. They're very heavily integrated economically with the rest of Britain.
You seem to have very long-lived characters in your books, either through 'replication' as in The Stone Canal or through longevity that characters have in Engines of Light. Is that a way of carrying the story on fewer characters?
Conservation of character? It's partly that and its partly because something like that is an element of the not too distant future - something short of Vernor Vinge's Singularity but some radical changes in human possibilities. If you don't have that, you have to have some explanation for it. In some space operas like Lois McMaster Bujold's, for instance, the characters live what we would consider to be a normal life span and then die. You have to ask why - 1,000 years in the future why haven't they fixed this? It depends what sort of story you're trying to write. If you're writing what is, in effect, a generational saga then maybe it's easier to have more normal lived generations. Damien Broderick, the Australian writer, in his book The Last Mortal Generation looks at different angles of attack on the mortality problem. He makes the exciting suggestion that the last mortal generation may be alive already - like the old Jehovah's Witness slogan "millions now living will never die." I think that's the minimum we can expect. If I die of old age in my 70s or 80s I'm going to be severely ticked off.
That's pretty much the opposite view of what Asimov used to say - that the only way we can keep going forward is with new generations. Asimov promoted the idea that there was a natural span and that we would all die.
I think that quite possibly there is a natural span, but we haven't reached it yet. In effect, living a long time means dying lots of times - in the sense of overcoming your previous limitations; leaving an earlier personality behind. There might be very little continuity between a person at the age of 20 and the same person at age 200. What effect general longevity would have on society is one that needs exploring and one that I haven't explored as yet.
So how does the idea that we, or our near successors, might live a very long time work with the idea that artificial intelligences might happen?
Personally, I think that longevity is a more hopeful prospect, but that's just my selfish preference. I became a bit notorious on one of the SF newsgroups - I think it was rec.arts.sf.written - a few years ago for arguing ferociously against the idea of artificial intelligence, or more particularly against the idea of artificial consciousness. Eventually we reached the point where each side of the argument had reduced the other to absurdity and there was no further result. I was saying "OK, supposing you've got an enormous arrangement of beer cans and string hanging out there which, if you watch it over a million years seems to be talking are you telling me that's conscious?" And the other people were saying "Well if it's saying 'I am conscious, please help me' how you could be so hard hearted as to turn it down."
But you do get people like Kevin Warwick at Reading University who has gone as far as sticking chips in his arm and so forth.
Yeah - he writes cheerful little books about how the machines are going to take over.
That our genuine successors are not going to be made of flesh.
Well, it's possible, but I still tend to think of that as the lights going out. I don't like Hans Moravec's vision of the future at all. I don't see why we should stand for it actually.
Then you get Iain M. Bank's Culture where we have artificial intelligences which let us lead apparently meaningful lives.
Well, that's the kicker - apparently meaningful. As Iain has said himself often enough, the humans in the Culture are somewhere between parasites and pets. The Culture is just the continuous wavefront that results from the people who don't want to be anything other than human and the machines which, for perverse reasons of their own, like hanging out with humans and the minds that don't transcend. I think it's conceivable that such a society could exist as one point on a wave but it's definitely an odd set-up. If Iain ever wants to push beyond it there are further interesting implications. The trouble is, frankly, writing science fiction about posthuman intelligences is boring. I greatly admired Greg Egan's book Diaspora but I hated that world. It's not a world I want to see, or to live in for that matter.
You could end up with something a little like the Cybermen with no emotions and who "can't appreciate the sunset" as Doctor Who would say.
It's quite possible that the idea of the artificial intelligence as an emotionless, soulless Cyberman is just a relic of bad science fiction and that better beings than us could evolve out of artificial intelligences, with godlike wisdom and great depth of emotion. In fact, that's what happens in Cassini Division. My character just still doesn't like them, to put it mildly. The thing is, I remain to be convinced that it's even possible. One consequence of living - not a greatly extended life span - but merely living 47 years is that you become wary and weary of these predictions because you've been hearing them as long as you've been reading this stuff. "AI that will supplant us is just around the corner." It ain't.
Does your attitude to that have anything to do with the computing career you had; the gritty understanding, perhaps, professional programmers have about computers that non-computing people who are awed by Windows 95, might think differently about where computers are up to now.
I think people possibly do, that's true, but I wish I could say that I have a better insight into the possibilities of AI as a result of working in programming. I don't think I do because a lot of the people who are most enthusiastic about it like the Extropians are people who are very familiar indeed with computers. I think that the point you make is correct on the popular level. I remember way back when Iain had just started writing the Culture novels, when he was at university, the people who were most sceptical of the idea of the great minds were people who were doing computer science. I remember friends saying computers can't argue and Iain would say "but they're not computers, they're something more than computers."
Do you attempt to keep up with computing?
No. Beyond reading New Scientist I don't. I probably should, even from the point of view of job security but I never seem to have time to even do things like HTML. I'm just winging it at the moment.
It was interesting at the start of Cosmonaut Keep where you picked up on the argument between Windows and Linux and the ideas which can be carried on - or have their origins in - a philosophical argument about what is free and who owns the code. Does that, perhaps, come back to a communist or socialist argument? Some people suggest that the free software movement is 'communist'.
'DotCommunism' is an interesting phenomenon. I think that we are genuinely running up against certain limits to the idea of property as applied to intellectual property. It's not an invented problem. It's a problem that's right here, right now in things like the music industry's struggle against Napster, pirating of books, pirating of software. As someone who has worked in software development and in writing I have a strong interest in intellectual property. At the same time, I think that it's a losing battle in terms of trying to prevent the simple replication of text or code or any arrangement of data. So there has to be some way of rewarding and motivating people who produce the stuff without putting all kinds of patches and fixes onto things to make it difficult to copy. It's a question where if I had the answer I would shut up about it and get very rich by developing this new business model.
I think it's interesting though - I just saw in the paper today how people are taking the latest Natalie Imbruglia CD back to the shops because it won't play on their PCs. It's copy protected and the copy protection is one of these thoroughly stupid - in programmer jargon, 'broken' - things. The way they've done it is to make it impossible to play on a PC and about half of all people who listen to CDs listen to them on their PCs. That's a typical big business cack-handed attempt to protect itself. On the other hand, the bands that have actively encouraged pirating of their own work - copying or MP3 swapping of their own work - have sell out gigs and their albums go to number one. I have noticed that young people who listen to MP3s on Napster tend to buy a lot more CDs than people who don't - or than they used to. There is a possibility that by casting your bread upon the waters it will return to you after not many days.
I notice that one of your books has 24 pages downloadable from Amazon.com, which seems to be the same idea of casting your bread - giving people the chance to find out whether they like it.
There was an interesting argument a while back on one of the SF newsgroups about this, where S.M. Stirling was arguing ferociously for hanging up by the thumbs people who were pirating books and putting them on the Internet. Eric Flint is an American science fiction writer published by Baen Books and who is a socialist and also understands perfectly well how property rights work. He said "look, this is no big deal. These are kids putting stuff out and making out that they're something dramatic like pirates but they're not pirates at all. Pirates are big tough guys with cutlasses and these are kids. Come off it." He said that he was so confident that freely distributing one or two of his books would increase his sales that he persuaded the guy who runs Baen to put free downloadable copies of his books from two or three years back on their website. I don't know what the outcome has been but I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that it has increased his sales.
The acknowledgements for Cosmonaut Keep note that the second chapter was written for Computer Weekly originally.
I was struggling with the book. I had several conflicting ideas about what book I was writing and I got this commission to write a short story set 50 years into the future of the IT industry. A whole lot of stuff in the book just originated in throwaway lines in that. Quite a bonus.
You haven't done many short stories, though.
I've done short stories for non-genre magazines on commission for what, I'm happy to say, we're ridiculous amounts of money negotiated by my ferocious agent. Like that one I did for the Computer Weekly. I did one for the Sunday Times magazine on life in a moon colony and one I did for a much less impressive amount of money for Nature in their future series. They did a series of one-page stories of less than a thousand words which has now found it's way into David Hartwell's Year's Best SF. It again used ideas that are used in Cosmonaut Keep - the asteroid minds.
I tried writing short stories when I started writing science fiction in my teens. I got a rejection slip from New Worlds Quarterly for a story where the alien planet turns out to be Earth. Gosh! Too radical for New Worlds, obviously. Pity I didn't know about The Last Dangerous Visions and I could have sent it to that! Over my 20s and 30s I very, very slowly collected rejection slips from Interzone and then gave up trying to write short stories and wrote a novel.
So the short stories you've written more recently - you are originating ideas you've used in longer works?
It wasn't the case with Moonlighting, the story set in a moon colony. I haven't used any ideas in that. The idea in that short story was of financing a lunar colony project by turning it into, basically Big Brother in space. Not that people get chucked out into space if they lost the vote but that they had webcams everywhere so what you do is sell the opportunity to watch your life. I think that would work actually. I think you'd get millions of people willing to pay a few pennies or dollars or whatever a month to watch you struggling along on a moon colony.
How about the book for Web 2028?
Cydonia? I like it. Quite a few of it's target audience who've spoken to me or written to me liked it. It was written as part of a series which had an overall story-arc. The first series - Web 2027 - had the story about the sinister woman who was downloading kids, or something like that. The second series - the one that Cydonia is a part of - had a story about aliens who had crashed into the Web and in effect downloaded themselves into the web. The overall general picture of that was worked out around a table in Simon Spanton's office one afternoon. Almost all the writers were involved and present. The ideas for Cydonia were ones that had been kicking around for a while in my head - the idea of this place which had an aquarium with Nessie in it and where the overhead fans were black helicopter blades. I happily used all this kind of stuff for Cydonia.
Another more recent one that I've done, a shorter work, is The Human Front which I've done for Peter Crowther's PS Publishing. They publish novellas in limited editions, which then get collected in four-story anthologies by Gollancz. Again I used in that an idea I'd had which wasn't enough of an idea to carry a novel but I think was quite a good one for a novella; an alternate history set in a world where the Roswell saucer didn't crash.
That's something that I thought was done well in the Engines of Light books was that it uses all of that UFO stuff without irony and without necessarily accepting it. It goes beyond it.
Thank you - that was the intention. I don't believe in the UFO mythology but I find it fascinating. Episodically, I find it fascinating. I did quite a bit of research on the web about Area 51 and read an interesting and entertaining book called The Dreamland Chronicles by David Darlington, which is about the whole subculture that's grown up around it. There's an interesting webzine, which is no longer active, called The Groom Lake Desert Rat. It was a newsletter about and for all the people who made attempts to penetrate Groom Lake and were turned back by the famous camo dudes. It's intriguing stuff because obviously the place exists and they do use it to develop very advanced aircraft and the mind just boggles. It's surrounded by this huge cloud of disinformation of which I think the UFO mythology may well be a part. Part of the background in Cosmonaut Keep and Dark Light was ideas I'd had a long time ago to try to work out what possible rational explanation there could be for what people claim to have happened.
Another book I read recently - Matthew Thomas's Terror Firma - tries to be a comedy novel about it. The book accepts it all as truth and then tries to drive it into the absurd, but it just doesn't work, in my humble opinion.
I think that's the wrong approach to it because it's already in the absurd, if you like. That sense of the evanescence of the phenomenon comes across very strongly in Ian Watson's novel Miracle Visitors, which I think is the best SF novel specifically about UFOs ever. However it's based in quite extraordinary metaphysics but its still one that's coherent in its own terms. There's a feeling that I got when I was a teenager and got addicted to that rubbish that the more you try to make sense of it the less sense it made. I think it's because what we call the UFO phenomenon is many different phenomena, some of which are real unknown phenomena and others of which are mistakes or misidentifications or outright lies. If you try to have one theory which makes sense of all of that you're on a hiding to nothing.
Probably the final question: did science fiction need Neuromancer?
Well, my personal answer to that is yes, it definitely did. I had more or less stopped reading science fiction, apart from Iain's [M. Banks] then-manuscripts, until I read Neuromancer. I thought that science fiction was really stuck. It was either that old New Worlds stuff or the equally boring Analog stuff and Neuromancer was like some eruption of the real world into science fiction. So yes, that and cyberpunk in general were extremely necessary for science fiction. It fact, probably saved it from becoming an exercise in nostalgia.
When it came out, Neuromancer was about 15 years after the rejuvenation of New Worlds and the creation of 'New Wave' SF. Having gone on another 15 years or so since then, do we need something more, or are we integrating better with progress?
Well, I remember having a discussion about this two or three weeks back. We had a very small convention at Edinburgh University where just this question came up from the audience. I think it may be one that's preoccupying people - that exact question that the boost that cyberpunk gave to the genre has more or less exhausted itself. To recapitulate, what I meant by 'the old New World stuff' being boring was that by the time it had been going for 15 years... I think the exhausted version of the New Worlds story was the early Interzone story - the rundown British environment with the rats and baked beans and all that sort of thing.
I think the field does need some new idea but I don't know what it is - if I did I would be writing it. Maybe I am...
Whilst MacLeod was not completely serious in this suggestion, some of us just might think he is.
Books by Ken MacLeod:
(in alphabetical order)
The Cassini Division (1998), Cosmonaut Keep (2000),
Cydonia (1998), Dark Light> (2001),
The Human Front (2002), The Sky Road (1999),
The Star Fraction (1995), The Stone Canal (1996)
Buy books at: Amazon.co.uk Amazon.com
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