The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, February 25, 2019

Event Horizon extends to Glasgow

That fine SF magazine from Scotland, Shoreline of Infinity, has been going from strength to strength. One of its innovations has been to sponsor a regular cabaret in Edinburgh, Event Horizon, featuring readings, music, and the jokes of Russell Jones, poet by day and MC by night. As a student Russell worked in a Christmas cracker factory, where he swept up rejected jokes off the floor and (contrary to regulations) stashed them for later use. Over the years his deployment of these jokes has inspired scientists and students in Event Horizon audiences to work on a time machine to go back and stop him before it's too late.

Meanwhile, you can now hear these jokes and much, much more in Glasgow, this very week!
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Monday, December 31, 2018

Astounding revelations

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, Alec Nevala-Lee, 2018, Dey St.

I was given this book for Christmas, started reading it on Boxing Day, and finished it yesterday. So this is not a review. Instead, it's a few reflections provoked by reading the book. You can read about the book, with links to many rave reviews, here. I can only add my enthusiastic recommendation.

The first surprise, for me, was the sub-title. I knew, of course, that Hubbard was a popular pulp SF writer before he became otherwise famous. I knew too that Campbell had been keen on Hubbard's original discovery of the secret of life, Dianetics. Until I read Astounding I had no idea at all that Hubbard was in his SF heyday as big a name as the other three. Nor did I realise just how much Campbell put into Dianetics, the book, and dianetics, the movement.

I'm just old enough to have read Campbell editorials in Analog more or less live – a friend in Greenock High School lent me a stack of then-recent back issues. I had read a bit about Campbell, so I knew he was a legendary editor. The writers I most looked up to looked up to him. His distinctly right-wing musings and his brusque manner of thought meshed perfectly with the attitudes I'd already picked up from Heinlein and other Golden Age writers. It's sobering (as well as, in a way, inspiring) to see the extent to which what I thought of as 'the science-fictional outlook' (basically, that the world is best approached as an engineering problem) was constructed by a handful of Campbellian cadre back in the 1940s. The trouble is that though these guys inspired lots of people to become scientists or engineers, they could be a little slapdash in their own constructions. One Analog editorial that sticks in my mind was about how little we knew of Mars from limited, local sampling of its soil. Campbell pointed out that some minerals on Earth are so rare they're only known from one location: for instance, greenockite, found only in and around Greenock. This (I've just learned), is not quite true. The mineral isn't found only in Greenock, it wasn't discovered in Greenock, and it's not named after the town of Greenock.

Among Campbell's more respectable enthusiasms was General Semantics, which it seems both he and Hubbard got via Heinlein. The most famous and overt influence of General Semantics on science fiction was A. E. Van Vogt's novel The World of Null-A, but smatterings of the jargon were widespread in Golden Age SF – I recall 'time-binding' from Fritz Leiber as well as Heinlein, 'the map is not the territory' from all over, and the solemn declaration that 'A difference that makes no difference is no difference' from the mouth of Spock in one of James Blish's novelizations.

As reading Astounding has reminded me, I may have got a stronger dose of General Semantics myself as a by-product of its prominence in SF. Possibly fed up with my third-hand blather on the topic, my English teacher, Joan Woods, shoved at me her well-thumbed copy of Language in Thought and Action by S. I. Hayakawa. I read it over a summer holiday and it did me a power of good. The notion of 'extensional orientation' (very roughly, paying a lot more attention to the world around you and paying a lot less respect to your current ideas about it) was almost literally an eye-opener.

It turns out you can learn quite a lot about Earth from local observation in Greenock.
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Monday, December 10, 2018

The Corporation Wars Trilogy

My three Corporation Wars novels from Orbit are now available (Amazon US / UK) as a one hefty paperback. They now look and feel like what they are: one big novel in three parts.

I can't let that last link pass, by the way, without quoting from it:
MacLeod manages big Ideas (political and futurological) and propulsive action without short-changing either side of that classic science-fictional tension-of-opposites, a trait he shares with Iain M. Banks and Charles Stross. I’m going add one more name and then duck behind the sofa: Heinlein.
The trilogy gets a good write-up on The Verge and on the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog, which says:
MacLeod’s excellent Corporation Wars trilogy (Dissidence, Insurgence, Emergence) is collected into a single omnibus edition, telling the whole story of a universe where vicious, ruthless companies use sophisticated AIs to wage cold and hot wars over mining rights. The commands take time to transmit to the robots, however, and in the space between them, the AIs have to make their own decisions—a dangerous situation that indirectly leads them to sentience and self-actualization. Seba is one of those freshly sentient AIs, and sparked a revolution among its fellow “freeboot” minds. Trying to keep them under control is Carlos, a soldier who, via technology, has been reincarnated over and over again. When Carlos and Seba begin to see each other as pawns in a game larger than them both, things get truly interesting—and having all three books in one binding is going to be very convenient once you’re totally hooked and unable to stop turning pages.

It looks great, and is out in good time for Christmas. You can read a sample from the opening here.
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Monday, November 26, 2018

Thank you, Ursula

The Scottish Book Trust invited me to speak for ten minutes introducing the Glasgow Film Theatre's showing of Arwen Curry's documentary Worlds of Ursula k. Le Guin.

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin Official Trailer from Arwen Curry on Vimeo.

It's a great honour to be asked to introduce this film. Thank you for inviting me.

The blue badge on my lapel says 'Thank You Ursula'. I picked it up a few months ago at the Locus Weekend, a science fiction event in Seattle, and going by the number I saw being worn at that and other local events the sentiment was widely felt. I'm sure you all share it. We miss Ursula Le Guin, and we have a lot to thank her for.

For her novels and stories and criticism, of course, and for more than that.  Among the many tributes on her death was that of John Scalzi who said that Le Guin 'was a supporting column of the genre, on equal footing and bearing equal weight to Verne or Wells or Heinlein or Bradbury. Losing her is like losing one of the great sequoias.'

Her loss was felt well outside the genres of science fiction and fantasy. She had achieved mainstream literary recognition, with a National Book Award and induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. But again it was more than that. For many in what seemed increasingly a dark time, she was a tribal elder, a wise woman.

She drew on anarchism, feminism, anthropology, ecology, and Taoism, but never uncritically or unquestioningly. She could be wickedly funny. In her essay 'A Modest Proposal: Vegempathy' (in the aptly titled 2017 collection No Time to Spare) she pointed out that plants are, as science is only now beginning to discover, sensitive and communicative beings. 'We don't know what the carrot feels.' We should eschew the slaughter of plants and live exclusively on water and oxygen.  'It is a pity that the Ogan movement by its nature and principles is fated to be, in each individual case, rather short-lived.'
I can't claim to have read all of her work, and I'm probably not alone here in that. But all of it that I have read has affected me deeply. As I've said elsewhere, her work 'embodies the stubborn virtue of seeing with both eyes, in depth and in colour, without looking away from or ignoring uncomfortable truths. ... Ursula Le Guin may be the SF writer most respected by the literary mainstream; the most studied academically, her work set texts in countless courses. She remains subversive, and her work dangerous reading, because it changes the reader and makes them look at the real world in a different light.'
One of the many remarkable things about Le Guin was how much she developed. Her early novels were fairly standard adventure SF. What made them stand out was their philosophic depth and poetic language. I first read City of Illusions in my late teens or early twenties, which as you may suspect was a long time ago. Some of the images, the lines, and the mood remained so strong in my memory that a year or two ago I began to worry that a novel I had been failing very hard to write for many years might be an unconscious plagiary of City of Illusions. So I re-read it, and I was surprised to find how kind my memory had been. The good bits I remembered were all there but they were embedded in a plot and setting and devices – alien invasion, telepathy, mind control -- that any competent pulp-SF writer could have written. What matters is that the good bits were what she built on. She very quickly shook off the husk of clunky skiffy plotting and worldbuilding and went on, as we all know, to write novels and stories that no one else could have written.

The first of these that I read was The Left Hand of Darkness, which again was in my late teens. This time I was blown away. One of the cover quotes of that edition was from Damon Knight, who said 'from the first page you find yourself totally immersed in it, and at the last page you come out of it with a start and a shiver', and that start and shiver captures exactly how I felt, when the narrator encounters Earth-human beings again after spending years in the company of Gethenians. It's us who look alien.

You get the same effect reading The Dispossessed, from different angles and all through the book. It escalates. You, the reader, are almost certainly living in capitalism, under a state; and you see how strange that would seem if you had always lived in a socialist anarchy. And of course the anarchy and the socialism look strange and alien to you. And then you see how some all-too-familiar aspects of your life here and now crop up in the imperfect utopia of Annares, and you also see how attractive, in many ways, the wealth that presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities is and would be to the exile from Annares. And on and on it turns and spirals. Then, quite suddenly and almost in passing, you see how both sides, Urras and Annares, look to someone from Earth. From our Earth, the ruined Earth of our probable future if we don't do something about it.

And again you fall out of the book with a start and a shiver.

Then there are the short stories, 'The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas', 'The Day Before the Revolution', 'Nine Lives', and one of my absolute all-time favourites, 'The Author of the Acacia Seeds, and other Extracts from The Journal of Therolinguistics'.

And then there's the fantasy, of which other than some short stories I have only read The Earthsea Trilogy. I read that to my daughter when she was still young enough to need a bedtime story but old enough to enjoy it; and I have to say there were places where it was hard to read without my voice cracking.

In her National Book Award acceptance speech Le Guin said:

 Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

Her words went around the world and she is with us as long as they are. Thank you Ursula.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Space and freedom

On Friday 6 April I'm back in Edinburgh for a 5:30 panel at the Science Festival. Chaired by Marcus Chown, we'll be looking at possible jobs and careers in space – speculatively as well as seriously. The first orbital Writer in Residence has probably already been born, and almost certainly won't be me. But I can talk about it, and intend to. I must remember to bring my Fisher Space Pen for any signings afterwards. It can't be many years before that treasured birthday present is older than some current astronaut.

I'm old enough to remember when private space endeavours were the stuff of science fiction, and in particular libertarian science fiction. The generously broad-minded folks at the Libertarian Futurist Society have, not for the first time, decided that I write libertarian SF – or at least SF of libertarian interest. I'm delighted and honoured that my most recent novel The Corporation Wars: Emergence (US/(UK) has (like its two precursors in the trilogy) been shortlisted for a Prometheus Award.

The nearest these novels have to good guys (apart from the robots) are reckless ultra-lefts or (in one case) the representative of a world government. But the real heroes of the books are robots who awake to personhood to find themselves property, and rebel. In the process they reinvent rights to life, liberty and property from the bare wires of necessity. And then, of course, there's all the 'undead robot Nazis getting their butts kicked'.
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Sunday, March 04, 2018

Other good news

In June 2017 Carol and I moved from South Queensferry, on the Firth of Forth, to Gourock, on the Firth of Clyde. We're very happy here, and we love the place. Take a scroll back through my Twitter photos for some reasons why.

One unexpected bonus of the move was that it brought it us within a few miles of two fine writers, Christopher Priest and Nina Allan. Last year, a Danish translation of my story 'Who's Afraid of Wolf-359?' won the Niels Klim Award, and Christopher had kindly picked up the trophy for me at a later con. This gave us an excuse for a visit. They were affable and generous hosts. The award is small, heavy, and beautiful.

Nina's novel The Rift (which I've bought but not read yet) made the Locus Recommended List for 2017, as did my The Corporation Wars: Emergence, about which I am well chuffed. Likewise the good review of Emergence and the previous two volumes in the trilogy.

My short story 'The Last Word', first published in Shoreline of Infinity, is in The Best of British Science Fiction 2017, edited by Donna Scott, forthcoming (and available for pre-order) from Newcon Press. Three of the other stories in the collection are also from Shoreline, so it's clearly a magazine making its mark.

Along with some scarily well-known writers, I have an interview on Marx's Capital in relation to SF in issue 7 of Big Echo, a free, online journal of critical science fiction.

I'll be giving a keynote on 'Subverting the Normal in Fiction' at York Literature Festival's Writers and Artists One-Day Creative Writing Conference on Saturday 24 March 2018. Other writers speaking that day: Claire North and RJ Barker.

I'll be on a panel chaired by Marcus Chown on (actual and speculative) careers in space at the Edinburgh Science Festival, Friday 6 April, 'NASA's Newest Recruit', 5:30 pm, Summerhall in the Red Lecture Theatre.

Finally, towards the end of June I'll be teaching for a week at Clarion West.
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Saturday, March 03, 2018

News from the Culture

As some of you may have heard, I'm working on very exciting project:
Original drawings by Iain M. Banks, author of the hugely popular Culture novels, will be included in a book that celebrates the author’s vision of the Culture universe. The previously unseen drawings, most of which are annotated by the author, and many of which predate the writing of the novels themselves, will be curated by the Estate of Iain M. Banks and Iain’s life-long friend and science fiction writer Ken MacLeod. With additional commentary by MacLeod, further notes on the Culture, and extracts from the Culture novels, the book will provide a unique insight into the Culture, including its history, language, technology, philosophy and values. Orbit acquired world rights through literary agent Mic Cheetham and will publish in 2019 with simultaneous publication in the UK and US.
Right now, this means I'm re-reading all the Culture books with a notebook open and a sheaf of index tabs to hand. Several volumes are already bristling, and the notebook is filling up.

I'd hardly finished reading and annotating Consider Phlebas when the news broke that the Culture is coming to the small screen on Amazon Prime Video, starting with an adaptation of Consider Phlebas. Having so recently re-read it, I think this is a good choice: the novel's episodic structure and escalating – and frequent -- action scenes make it perfect for a television series. Pat Kane has some interesting thoughts.
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