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The Literature of Progress


Leaving the opera in the year 2000, hand-coloured lithograph by Albert Robida

This is the second in a series of interviews with science-fiction writers about the politics of their work and what “speculative fiction” offers us about doing progressive politics in different ways.

Introducing Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod emerged in the 1990s as a boldly political science-fiction writer. For instance, his second series of books, The Engines of Light (Cosmonaut Keep (2000), Dark Light (2001) and Engine City (2002)), can be read as an adventure through time and space. But for anyone familiar with the contours of the twentieth-century western Left and a Marxist understanding of capitalism and class, the books offer another story that parallels some of the most famous (or infamous) debates on the Left. That is not to say that the books are merely a series of in-jokes. MacLeod’s political analysis means that he tells his stories in a particular way. His characters are always enmeshed in complex contexts that have historical and collective dimensions. To paraphrase Marx, they may make choices, but not in conditions entirely of their own making.

Though American publishers were concerned that MacLeod’s explicit class analysis and constant referencing of Marxist thinkers and politicians would hurt sales, his books have been bestsellers in both the U.S. and the U.K. This might be attributed to the fact that the books are not merely politics in sci-fi settings; they are also grounded firmly in science (he has a B.A. in zoology and an M.A. in biomechanics), computer science (his career until he became a successful writer) and an exhaustive knowledge of the past masters of science fiction (he penned a chapter on the politics of SF for a Cambridge University Press-edited collection). And he’s a damn good storyteller.

MacLeod comes by his political themes the hard way – as a veteran of the internecine battles of the British Left. A former member of the British Communist Party, a Trotskyist of varying hues and now a committed libertarian socialist firmly wedded to markets, MacLeod continues to grapple with the contemporary problems of the socialist Left in his books and on the Web, through Internet chat groups and his own website and blog. His most recent book, The Execution Channel (subtitled “The war on terror is over. Terror won.”) is available from Tor Books.

Politics and Writing

Canadian Dimension: Why did you decide to put your political ideas into science-fiction writing? Is there something about science fiction particularly that lets you say what you want?

Ken MacLeod: I didn’t particularly decide to put my political ideas into the books. It’s more that the ideas for the books came to me with the political side already implicit. For example, long before I had any kind of outline for The Star Fraction, I had this image of the woman scientist in the wrecked laboratory and the guy with the gun, and the guy was “a communist mercenary.” That was all I knew about him. I then had to think out what sort of world would have to exist for him to exist. It’s like in the computer game, Civilization II, where you start off with a little guy with a spear and a hut, and as he walks around the world comes into shape around him. Since then, I’ve had to take a much more planned approach to the actual writing, but that’s still how the ideas come.

To answer your second question, science fiction does give the writer an enormous amount of freedom to run political thought experiments. When I wrote the first four books – the ones I later called the Fall Revolution books – I was fascinated by market-libertarian ideas, particularly those of Robert Nozick and David Friedman. And the only way you can make these ideas concrete is in a science-fictional setting – unless you take medieval Iceland or modern Somalia as examples of anarcho-capitalism. (Some do.)

Similarly, I’d for a long time had two ideas about the future of the far-left organizations. The first was of my generation as old people still making trouble in a changed world – what I thought of as “unionizing the space rigs” – and the other was of the organization surviving into a yet farther future as a legendary conspiracy, like the Illuminati. And, of course, that required SF to flesh out.

The Feasibility of Market Socialism

CD: While people are oppressed in your books by the state and other actors, markets seem to offer them opportunities. Has the Left been wrong to reject markets? Can there be a socialist version of a non-exploitive market?

KM: Yes and yes. In the mid-eighties, when the hour was already late, the market-socialist position began to get a hearing on the Left with the publication of Geoffrey Hodgson’s The Democratic Economy and Alec Nove’s The Economics of Feasible Socialism. These books woke me, for one, out of my dogmatic slumbers, but they seemed swept away by the fall of the Soviet Bloc. But history didn’t stop there, the evidence didn’t stop piling up – and the critiques of both central planning and capitalism themselves have not ceased to be valid, and grasping them is central to a renewal of the Left. The strongest intellectual support I know of for this position is the work of the American socialist David Schweickart, whose book, After Capitalism, I’m reading at the moment. Schweickart neither idealizes nor washes his hands of the state-socialist record, and he draws on experiences that range from the famous Mondragón co-ops to post-Maoist China – which he regards as a bureaucratic, market socialism, while insisting that it’s a very contradictory phenomenon with many deplorable aspects. Even so, his view of China may be too rosy. But in any case most of what has gone into my books – particularly in The Sky Road – along these lines has been inspired by more voluntary co-operative traditions, such as mutualism and individualist anarchism. Joe Peacott, Larry Gambone and Kevin Carson are three names that can be Googled up or otherwise conjured for more about these. Kevin Carson, in particular, has done some fascinating work on the interface of the free-market libertarian and the libertarian-socialist positions.

CD: The running battle between various forms of anarchists and state-oriented socialists in your books – is this just a fun reworking of your political past, or do you think these debates are still relevant in the here-and-now?

KM: They’re very much relevant, but they aren’t necessarily the way these issues should be posed today, because most people have quite rightly more pressing things on their minds than wading through the history of the Left. They want answers to the problems of the present, not arguments over who was right and who was wrong in the First International – or the Second, Third, Fourth…. But having said that, what distinguished Marx from other socialists of his time was his insistence on a working-class political party, which would aim at working-class political power in order to bring about a socialist society. In short: workers’ party, workers’ state. Now, in among all the rubbish Bakunin wrote, you can find a couple of basic points he made against Marx: the workers’ party would become bourgeois, and the workers’ state would become bureaucratic. Either the party would compromise with capitalism, or it would become the core of a state of the intelligentsia, etc., over the workers. And on this he was right, dammit! Stalinism and social democracy would, I’m sure, have horrified Marx – but they arose from and are, as it were, back-compatible with his project.

One of the problems I have with some on the Left is that they dissociate themselves from the past and present state-socialist regimes, but what they actually propose is, well, state socialism – but, of course, with more democracy, civil liberties and blah, blah, blah, which everybody knows wouldn’t survive the first real emergency (i.e. about day two of the revolution). Even the reforms they propose are statist. It would be much better, in my opinion, if they were to do the opposite: Take a bit more responsibility for the state-socialist past and propose something that is visibly different and institutionally unlikely to replicate the well-known defects of state socialism.

A Turn from Politics?

CD: Is the turn to hard SF a turn away from politics for most of its practitioners?

KM: That depends. Some writers of hard SF are political, usually libertarian – Vernor Vinge, Gregory Benford come to mind. Others, such as Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds, aren’t turning away from politics because they’ve never turned towards it. Alastair Reynolds, however, has done something really interesting: He’s tried to imagine, in a hard-SF context, a future politics where the divisions are over completely different issues than those that exercise us today. Bruce Sterling, back in the eighties, did something rather similar in his novel, Schismatrix. It’s also worth bearing in mind that there are far more interesting things in the universe than politics.

CD: Your last book, Learning the World, seemed like a departure from your previous efforts. Yes, the blogging, the factions, the intrigue were all there – but your depiction of the alien culture seemed very different than other things you’ve written. The book reverses the “first contact” perspective, focusing primarily on the aliens. The handling struck me as very Clarke-esque, à la Rendezvous with Rama or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Was there something special you were trying to do with this novel?

KM: Yes, indeed. I set out very consciously to do two things with it. The first was to write a novel as if it were on a straight line through a certain British SF tradition – Wells, Stapledon, Clarke – projected forward to the present, without the New Wave and cyberpunk. Now, in a certain sense that’s impossible, because you can’t undo the later influences – and nor should you want to – but I think it was a pretty good try. The second was to take as the model for future history not historical materialism, as in my previous books, but the Victorian liberal historians: from Lord Macaulay, at the respectable end, through the more militantly rationalist and libertarian Henry Thomas Buckle, to the downright polemical Winwood Reade. Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man gave me an epigraph for the book. I think Reade was the first person to say, in so many words, “Mankind will migrate into space.” That’s an amazing leap of imagination for the time.

Blood and Oil

CD: Your just-released novel, The Execution Channel, seems more directly tied to the contemporary politics, i.e. terrorism. How does the book weigh into present debates?

KM: The analysis behind it is that the War on Terror is in fact an attempt by the U.S. and its allies, principally the U.K., to control the Middle East and Central Asia, and that, in the long run, this will bring these powers into open, or rather – as now – covert conflict with Russia, China and other powers. Michael Klare’s Blood and Oil is a good summary of the evidence for that kind of analysis, which is of course quite widely understood. My novel doesn’t deal with questions of the morality of terrorism at all, but it does refer to the real-world fact that Islamist terrorism is sometimes used by the U.S., despite knowing that the forces it uses can pop up elsewhere to attack U.S. interests. For example, there are persistent, unrefuted reports that the CIA literally airlifted mujahedin from Afghanistan to Bosnia during the war in Yugoslavia, and that today the U.S. is covertly supporting Islamists in Baluchistan, inside Iran. One of the characters calls this the “muj pipeline.”

Other political points implied in the novel are that it doesn’t make much difference on this level which party is in power in the U.S., and that a certain kind of conservative in a country like Britain could find themselves becoming radical over the degradation of liberty that the endless war brings with it. There’s a sense of loss and anger in it that I certainly feel myself, and that I hope will resonate with some other people.

CD: In the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, you wrote that, “Science fiction is essentially the literature of progress, and the political philosophy of SF is essentially liberal.” Given the current state of unprogressive and illiberal capitalism, does this bode ill for science fiction?

KM: Well, in a certain Marxian sense, capitalism is still liberal and progressive. It’s still battering down all Chinese Walls, rescuing entire populations from the idiocy of rural life, melting all that is solid into air, and all of that. On the other hand, well … as Jim Cannon said at his trial, “Wherever capitalism penetrated, its laws followed it like a shadow,” and we all know the ways in which the shadow has got longer and darker. But I think it would take a severe regression in social consciousness for science fiction to cease to be generally progressive, or at least a stimulus to subversive thought. (Which isn’t to say there isn’t a lot of reactionary SF; it’s to say that it’s by no means predominant.) SF is expanding fast in China, and to a lesser extent in India. If things go bad in the West, I would hope that SF would be an oppositional and critical literature. Even if it failed in that, the great body of SF from the past would witness that we once had the hope of progress.

This article appeared in the November/December 2007 issue of Canadian Dimension (Capitalism vs the Earth).


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