Science fiction and politics – Ken MacLeod

March 2007 sees the publication of Ken MacLeod’s new near-future sf thriller, The Execution Channel. I was privileged to secure an interview with Ken via email, and the parts of it that deal with the new book can be read over at the excellent SF Site.

However, even once I’d taken all of that out, there was still masses of great material left over, and I’m pleased to be able to publish it on Velcro City Tourist Board. Here, Ken talks about his long friendship with fellow Scots science fiction author Iain M. Banks, his reading and writing habits, and his views on transhumanism and the singularity. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Ken MacLeod interview without a few questions about politics, so if you’ve been wondering what Libertarianism actually means (to Ken, at least), here’s your chance to find out. Enjoy!

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PR: Who were(/are) your sf idols: the writers that hooked you on the genre, and the ones who inspired you to become a writer yourself?

Ken MacLeod: “SF idols: Robert A. Heinlein; John Brunner; and M. John Harrison. I got hooked by Alan E. Nourse. [I was] inspired to become a writer by the example of Iain M. Banks.”

If it’s not prying too much, can you confirm the rumours that Iain has sold of some of his gas guzzlers and bought a Prius?

“Yes, he’s doing that, or at least in the process of doing that.”

Iain mentioned in a BBC4 interview that he’d taken 15 years of churning out manuscripts before selling one, and that you sold the first one you finished (much to his chagrin). How fast and loose with the truth is he being? If he’s exaggerating, how did it actually happen?

“The chagrin is one of Iain’s little jokes – he was delighted. The rest is basically true. Iain started writing novels while he was at university. His first was TTR, a very long satirical novel full of puns and characters with improbable names of which the least ridiculous was Gropius Luckfoot – a rich man, who as I recall is introduced thus: ‘Gropius Luckfoot was born with a chrome forcep in his mouth.’ Iain collected many rejection slips for TTR.

“After that I think he made one false start, then wrote Use of Weapons, Against a Dark Background, The Player of Games, and Consider Phlebas (I think that’s more or less the right order). Then, after all of these had been rejected, he wrote what he quite honestly thought was a conventional mainstream novel – he actually agonised to some of his friends that he was selling out, betraying the SF cause, by going middle-of-the-road with this everyday story of country folk, The Wasp Factory.

“Now, in my own case I wrote a very few short stories over many years, and kept telling Iain about these great *ideas* I had for novels, and it was in part because I’d gathered from a third party that Iain was getting well pissed off with this – because he knew I could do it – that I started writing The Star Fraction. Finishing the first draft took several years, off and on. I sent a second draft to Iain’s agent, Mic Cheetham, who showed me what was wrong with it by asking: ‘If it was a film, what would you put on the poster?’

“I replied, ‘It’s about a man who gets killed but his gun goes on fighting.’

“‘Go and write *that* book,’ she said.

“So over the next few months I rewrote it entirely and sent it to Mic, who took it round to John Jarrold – then the editor at Legend – and he read it and made a two-book offer straight away.”

Iain is renowned for his ‘three months on, nine months off’ writing schedule. How do you organise your own work-load? Do you take a lot of notes or clippings when stewing up a new book, or is it all a cerebral process until you sit down at the keyboard?

“The truth is that I organise it very badly, and organising it better is my main New Year resolution. But what usually happens is I get an idea, make notes, feel sure I’ve got it, write a page or two and run into a wall, then go off and make more notes and a proper outline, and then write a book which deviates wildly from the outline at some point in the last third – because the plot logic is different in the working out than it seemed in the outline.”

Can you tell us what’s next in the pipeline as far as your writing is concerned?

“Most likely, an expansion of my Sandstone Press novella The Highway Men.”

What’s the next book in your ‘to-read’ pile?

“Pride and Prejudice.”

Do you read a lot outside of the genre? What authors would you recommend to genre readers that you think they should read (but doubt they have)?

“I regret to say I don’t read enough science fiction, and I particularly avoid reading in whatever sub-genre I’m writing in at the moment. So I have a huge backlog of good new space opera to read, starting with Karl Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes. Most of what I read while I’m working on a book is non-fiction – history, memoirs, pop science, philosophy. I’ve just read Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and am currently reading Thomas Paine’s reply to it, Rights of Man.

“I suspect from my own case and others that the big gap in most genre readers’ reading is good contemporary mainstream fiction. SF readers tend to like classics and historical fiction, but to dismiss modern literary fiction. This is a mistake – and one I go on making.”

You had free sample pages from one of your novels available for download way back in 2002, and you’re on record as saying that piracy is an over-inflated issue. Have you been watching the results of (and reactions to) Stross, Doctorow and Watts releasing entire works in this way?

“I haven’t followed it closely, but I’ve discussed it with my editor at Orbit. For the moment, we’re of the opinion that while it may work for some authors, it’s not necessarily something that would work for most.”

Do you think that ebooks, podcasting, print-on-demand and democratised publishing (ie, the internet) is the nemesis or the saviour of literature in general, and sf in particular?

“Neither.”

The Execution Channel features blogging quite heavily, as did Learning the World to some extent. You’re a blogger yourself, so you know the medium – do you see it as being an important tool of the ongoing future, or a useful flash in the pan?

“Blogging, or something like it, is here to stay.”

I interviewed Karl Schroeder recently, and he gave the Vingean technological singularity a thorough kicking; you are credited with coining the moniker ‘rapture of the nerds’ for the same concept. What is your principle objection to the scenario (technological or ideological)?

“Actually, that specific phrase was coined by an Extropian in a self-satirical article. ‘The Rapture for nerds’ was my riff on that, and I also riffed on – or ripped off – a few other phrases from that article in the same conversation in The Cassini Division. But you have to remember, in that novel the Singularity happens! I don’t have any objection to the concept, in principle. I have two suspicions about it. One is technological – quite simply, that human-equivalent AI is very much harder than is supposed. As I’ve said before, it’s been twenty years away for as long as I can remember. My other suspicion is ideological: that its current or recent popularity has been a sophisticated version of millennarianism, that recurrent belief in an imminent, total transformation of life on earth by some superhuman agency. I think now its moment is over. It was a 90s dot-com boom thing, that flourished between the fall of the Wall and the fall of the Towers, like some other illusions.”

You’ve mentioned before that you think life extension is a realistic possibility within the next handful of decades; how far would you go to extend your own life-span? And how much sympathy do you have with the transhumanist movement?

“So far, the only proven life-span extension method is calorie restriction, which I understand works in rats, and I haven’t gone for that. In matters of speculative medicine I have no intention of being an early adopter. It’s like the old joke: how many extropians does it take to change a light-bulb? None, they sit in the dark and wait for the technology to improve. If something came along that was no more of an effort than giving blood, having a minor operation, or taking pills, I’d go for it. The World Transhumanist Association has me as one of its honorary letterhead figureheads. I’m not active in it, but I support its general outlook and I wish it well.”

The Execution Channel is politically very provocative – you’re no stranger to politics in sf, but the could-be-tomorrow closeness of the setting makes the questions it asks much more immediate and harder to shrug off as idle speculative entertainment. Was this a form of literary catharsis?

“Well, I’d hoped it would be. I said to Iain Banks that since writing my first novel I’d had ten years or so more of accumulated rage to blow off. However, writing it didn’t have any cathartic effect at all.”

You’ve thrice won the Prometheus Award for libertarian science fiction writing. ‘Libertarian’ isn’t a word you hear very often in the UK, and researching into it on the internet tends to run a person into a lot of intense (and often conflicting) invective from US fringe politics. So, for the politically ignorant (myself included), what the hell is libertarianism, in a nutshell?

“Even that question is a bit of a minefield, because historically ‘libertarianism’ was more or less synonymous with anarchism, which – even in its individualist versions – is a form of socialism. But in current usage – contested though it is – ‘libertarianism’ usually refers to a range of ideas that derive historically from liberal and to some extent conservative thought. In its moderate form it’s classically stated in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and Herbert Spencer’s The Man versus the State. Its extremism is what’s provocatively called anarcho-capitalism. The best one-liner about it is: ‘Thatcherism – on drugs!’ The most thorough philosophical exposition of libertarianism is Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. The best introduction to it for British readers is to browse the vast online literature of the Libertarian Alliance, to which I’ve contributed a couple of documents. There’s a splinter group also called the Libertarian Alliance which has another online archive, also full of fascinating stuff. And, of course, the website Critiques of Libertarianism, for the other side of the argument.”

OK, so *are* you a libertarian? Or a socialist? Or both, or neither?

“I’ve often asked myself that question. In a review of Newton’s Wake, Gwyneth Jones alluded to my ‘hard-left libertarianism’ and I immediately agreed with her – yes, I’m a hard-left libertarian! I have very hard-line libertarian positions on some questions, such as guns and drugs and free speech.

“On the other hand I have no objection to a public sector that is financed by honest tax-and-spend and not mucked about by so-called market reforms, which I strongly suspect were consciously advanced by free-market think-tanks for no other purpose than to destroy public transport, the health service and so on. In the long run I would like to see the public services run by mutual associations rather than by the state, but that’s another question.

“The only kind of socialism I would propose for the foreseeable future is what the economist Alec Nove called ‘feasible socialism’, or some kind of market socialism. The socialist thinker I find most interesting at the moment is the American philosopher David Schweickart. There is no party that actually advocates feasible socialism or market socialism, as far as I know. In any case, I don’t think that’s the real dividing line in current politics. The real issue is whether you are for or against imperialism and all the repression and surveillance and authoritarianism that goes with it.”

You’ve said that you aim to provoke independent thought in your readers, rather than declaim a set ideology as an ideal. But to what extent is your fiction a personal exercise in political thought experiment? Or in other words, do you know where you’re going before you start, or do you set the initial conditions and see where the story goes?

“The political thought experiments have gone on in my head before I start writing the story. The anarcho-capitalist territory of Norlonto of The Star Fraction, for instance, was pretty clear in my mind for years before I wrote it. It tends to be the twists of the plot that change as the story develops.”

UK citizens, especially the young, seem to be increasingly disinterested in (and mistrustful of) politics as a system (as well as politicians as individuals). Why do you think this is so?

“TINA – There Is No Alternative. The major parties agree on the major issues, and even where they don’t, they compete for the swing voter and the centre ground. The political arguments we referred to a moment ago, about capitalism, the free market, and socialism, are dead. Dead partly in the same sense as Nietzsche’s ‘God is dead’, and dead partly in the sense of ‘dead as disco’. As for mass movement protest politics, the banners of the last two big mobilizations were: Stop the War, and Make Poverty History. Some disillusionment was inevitable.”

Would you hazard to make a vague prognosis on the next decade of UK (and world) politics?

“What will decide everything for a long time to come is whether or not the US attacks Iran. I fear it’s quite probable before Bush leaves office, and that it’s possible, though somewhat less probable, that it’ll include the use of at least tactical nuclear weapons. If that happens we are looking into the fucking abyss. It would be a situation where the future world of The Execution Channel is one we’d be very lucky to get.

“If the US doesn’t bomb Iran, then the next few years won’t be so apocalyptic, but still messy. The best the US can hope for in Iraq is a withdrawal that doesn’t leave behind a failed state and that doesn’t destroy the US Army in the process. The US has a choice between an embarrassing failure and a crushing, humiliating, generation-defining defeat. And then there are what Donald Rumsfeld called ‘unknown unknowns’ – break-through technologies, some sudden worsening of climate change, whatever.”

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions, and best of luck with The Execution Channel and your future work.

Science fiction, science fact, and all that's in between …