The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, November 03, 2023

Chengdu Worldcon: Meet the Future

This historic Worldcon has already been very well covered by others, e.g. Nicholas Whyte and Jeremy Szal. For lots of coverage of events, guests and so on, see the con’s Facebook page.

But I’ve been back over a week, and here’s my overdue account.

Last month I spent far too few days in China, at the Chengdu Worldcon, to which I was invited as an international guest. My travel, and accommodation for me and my wife, were covered by the Committee of the 2023 Chengdu World Science Fiction Convention, for which much thanks.

We had a wonderful time. The convention was a smashing success and easily the biggest, and most publicly celebrated, Worldcon ever.

We arrived at Chengdu airport in the early evening of Wednesday 18 October and quickly met volunteers at a stall near the exit, from which were immediately hurried to a minibus that took us to the Sheraton Pidu. Along the way we saw advertisements for the Chengdu Worldcon lining the highways, and the robot panda mascot at numerous intersections. We met the volunteer who was looking after us, Zoe, who was unfailingly sweet and helpful throughout. Our luggage was whisked inside and we were back on a bus for a short drive to the venue.
This was the elegant and futuristic newly built Chengdu Science and Science Fiction Museum, across a lake in the park from the hotel. We took our seats just in time for the start of the opening ceremony.

This combined a traditional Worldcon opening ceremony...
...with a spectacular show, including song and dance, giant video projections, and culminated in a drone display outside the huge semi-circular window of astronomical and sci-fi images whose high point was an outline rendering of a spinning black hole (which unfortunately I didn’t catch, so you’ll have to make do with Saturn).

The other ceremonies – the Galaxy Awards, the opening of the Chengdu International Science Fiction convention, the Hugo Awards, the Hugo after-party, and the closing ceremony – were likewise spectacular: a primary school choir sang in one of these, an entire symphony orchestra took the stage in another, and so on.
They were MC’d by professional television presenters.

The venue was as impressive inside as outside.
I took part in a couple of panels, one on Science Fiction and Future Science and one on cyberpunk, and was interviewed on video by an Italian documentary company and on voice recording for the Huawei news website. For two mornings I put in an hour or two at the Glasgow Worldcon stand. Never in my life have I been asked for so many autographs, or to pose with so many people for photographs. Nicholas Whyte, also at the stall, had the same experience, and others did too. Hardly any of the people whose notebooks and souvenirs we signed, or who stood beside us to have their photo taken, could have known who we were: that were overseas visitors with something to do with science fiction was enough. Among the few who did know us were some students from the Fishing Fortress College of Science Fiction in Chongqing. Our enthusiastic reception was nothing to that of Cixin Liu, author of the Three-Body trilogy and the story filmed as The Wandering Earth. His signing queue was like those I’ve seen for Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Science fiction in China is taken very seriously and sincerely by its fans.

Thousands upon thousands of people passed through the venue, including many primary-school classes there for the day. Lots of young people, and lots of families. They weren’t just there for the toys and for the impressive tech exhibition hall.
The bookstall just across from the Glasgow Worldcon stall had a fast-moving queue of book-laden customers all the time. Many panels were standing room only, with people crowding the doorway leaning in and recording on their phones.

There were hundreds of volunteers, some minding the international guests, others helping visitors to the venue, acting as guides in exhibitions, or adding some elegance to the ceremonies.

Some even worked on security (the hotel and the venue had almost airport-level security throughout the convention). Most seemed to be from language schools, and eager to practice their English.

Our good friend Fan Zhang, who looked after us so well in Beijing in 2019, now has an important post at the Fishing Fortress college of Science Fiction. He took us out to dinner with two of his staff, and had some interesting proposals for next year, which I’m seriously considering.

We had one side trip organised by the convention for guests: a visit to Chengdu’s famous panda research centre, truly unforgettable.

Alongside the hotel was an exhibition of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’, traditional arts and crafts: Shu embroidery not just displayed but demonstrated, traditional music and singing, silver filigree, a tea ceremony, cut-paper pictures, and melted-sugar drawings made before our eyes and handed to us on a stick to eat. It all made for an interesting and uplifting hour.

On our final day, Monday 23 October, Carol and I went on our own to the Wuhou Shrine, a historic site and major tourist destination set in a great park which opens to some old streets, now lined with gift shops and street food stalls.

And on Tuesday we began the long journey home. We had met old friends and made new ones, and it was a pang to leave.

We owe thanks to many people – the organisers and volunteers, especially Zoe, and a special thanks to the indefatigable Sara Chen.
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Thursday, April 20, 2023

Cosmia Festival

On Saturday I’ll be at the Cosmia Festival in Huddersfield. I have a talk about my recent and current books (4:45pm to 5:45pm), and from 7pm to 8:15pm I'll be talking about Iain M. Banks along with his (and my) friend and musical collaborator, Gary Lloyd.

£10 for the day, with a great range of authors, plus workshops and exhibitions: details and bookings here.
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Friday, April 14, 2023

Moniack in a Month – Writing Science Fiction

Moniack Mhor is Scotland’s creative writing centre, located in a spectacular landscape in Inverness-shire. I’ve taught there before, with Mike Cobley, and it was great. But a residential week or long weekend isn’t for everyone, which is why Moniack Mhor offers ‘Moniack in a Month’: courses held over Zoom, with one evening workshop a week for four weeks, plus one-to-one tutorial sessions and guest events.

I’m delighted to say that bookings are now available for an online course on writing science fiction which I’ll be teaching this September. Details are here. The wonderful Justina Robson has kindly agreed to be our Guest Reader.
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Monday, March 27, 2023

Lightspeed trilogy publication news: UK and US

Last week saw the UK publication of my new novel, Book Two of the Lightspeed trilogy, BEYOND THE REACH OF EARTH, available here from Amazon UK.

A day later came the US publication of the first book, BEYOND THE HALLOWED SKY, by Pyr Books and available via Simon and Schuster, with links to Amazon and other online bookshops.

This book has had kind words from North American authors:
Ken Macleod does things nobody else does and this is a terrific read. – Jo Walton, multi-award-winning author of Among Others and What Makes This Book So Great

Sure, some writers knock it out of the park but with Beyond the Hallowed Sky, Ken MacLeod knocks it right out of the solar system! Too often, space opera throws science out the airlock, but MacLeod has given us a believable faster-than-light adventure that will have you racing through the pages at superluminal speed. – Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of The Oppenheimer Alternative

An exceptional blend of international politics, hard science, and first contact.

- Michael Mammay, author of the Planetside series.

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Sunday, January 22, 2023


I haven’t been blogging much, and I hope to do more this year. There are one or two exciting publication announcements in the pipeline. In the meantime, here’s a recent interview with the incredibly productive Moid of Media Death Cult, in which I talk about books I’ve read and books I’ve written, from my office which (New Year resolution!) needs some tidying.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Address to the Edinburgh Science Festival Church Service 2022

The Edinburgh Science Festival closes with a church service in the historic St Giles' Cathedral. It includes a ten-minute non-religious, non-political address. This year I was honoured to be asked to give it. As you can see, the service is as splendid as the setting. My talk starts at 33:28. The text follows below.

The theme of this year’s Science Festival is Revolution. This is an apt topic here in St Giles, which after all is the very spot where the revolution, in the then Three Kingdoms, began: a revolution that created modern Britain. But whether Jennie Geddes is real or legendary, I hope no chairs are hurled at the pulpit today. So, steering well clear of religion or politics, I’d like to talk about how we talk about politics, and when and why people started talking about revolution. Interestingly enough, it was at about the same time that our revolution happened, in the seventeenth century.

In the same century, and perhaps by no coincidence, there was a scientific revolution. The mechanics of Galileo and Newton was the subversive science of its day, challenging the metaphysical doctrines of ancient tradition as shatteringly as the artillery it helped to aim battered down the walls of lordly castles. And it left its mark on our language of politics.

When you look at the language and vocabulary that we use to describe political events, you find a surprising number of words from seventeenth-century physics and astronomy. Revolution in that context meant a complete turning of a wheel, or the circuit of a planet in its orbit – the revolutions of the heavenly bodies, as Copernicus titled his revolutionary thesis. And revolution, as a metaphor in politics, originally meant something very similar – a return to the starting point.

At the time it must indeed have seemed like that. You get rid of a King, you fight a civil war and end up with a Protector, and then the Protector dies and before you know it you have a King again. And everything seems to be back in the same place as it was before: after the Interregnum, the Restoration. Looking back, people in later centuries could see more clearly that it was not: that some things had changed irreversibly, and the revolution, you might say, kept rolling on.

We still talk of masses, which may or may not be in motion. We speak of political and social movements, which may or may not have certain dynamics. We evaluate the balance of forces. If we’re politics professors or journalists, we may ponder the electoral cycle. We may look at a social or political system – and that word too, system, originates in astronomy – and ask whether the system is stable or unstable, or whether or not it is in equilibrium. We may investigate the system’s mechanics. We may despair at the system’s inertia, and hope, perhaps in vain, for some impulse or even momentum to change it. And can the change we seek or fear be accelerated, or retarded? Should we worry about possible retrograde developments? Will our action in the end produce a reaction?

It’s Newtonian mechanics all the way down! Well – perhaps not quite. There are some other sciences that we draw on for political metaphor: the idea of a political upheaval surely comes from geology, as does a political earthquake, when the tectonic plates of politics shift. (I wonder how many years of the Edinburgh Science Festival, and how much toil of primary and secondary school teachers, and how many school visits to Dynamic Earth it took before plate tectonics became a political metaphor that everyone could understand!)

Our most troubling political language comes from biology, and evolutionary biology in particular. The metaphors of competition, of natural selection, of struggles for existence have been applied and misapplied with dire consequences. This pains me greatly, not least because I trained as a zoologist. Now, I’ve read Darwin, and for my sins I’ve even read Herbert Spencer, and I can honestly say that in these matters they are both much maligned. There is no basis in their work, let alone in modern biology, for any kind of racial politics. But when the founding text of a discipline is titled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life it’s all too easy to see how misunderstandings could arise.

Is there a biological science that might offer us a more fruitful language for politics? I think there is: ecology. It’s already provided us with two familiar terms in politics: sustainability, and diversity. Ecology examines all forms of life in interaction with their physical environment and with each other, and identifies and measures the flows of energy and material among them. And humanity, of course, is now a somewhat important form of life, and affects these flows on a planetary scale, not always entirely for the good of itself, let alone the rest.

Ecology, I think, is as subversive a science in our time as Newton’s mechanical philosophy was in his. Why? It delivers warnings about what our interactions with the rest of nature are doing to us and to the planet, certainly. But it does more. It suggests a science of ourselves that starts with our relationship with the rest of nature, and with each other. Like it or not, we all need food, drink, and shelter, and like it or not we can only get them from the rest of nature and in and through relationships with other people. Human beings can’t sustain themselves individually, like the sea-birds outside my window, or co-operate instinctively, like the ants in my back yard. We’re social and productive by necessity but not by instinct, so we must rely on thought and speech. To make our living together, we have to speak and think, imagine and create, question and discover. An ecologically inspired science of humanity could start from these facts, and trace the flows of material and energy through human society and back to the earth and air and water around us. It could ask what people think they’re doing, and investigate what they’re actually doing. It might dig up all kinds of inconvenient truths about where stuff comes from, where it goes, and how it gets there -- and who gets it, and who gives. And if these connections became widely known and understood, people might want to change a lot of what goes on.

Perhaps we need a better metaphor for change than revolution. One that has always stuck in my mind is ecological succession. On land left bare by ice or fire or landslide or flood, different populations of plants, animals and fungi settle in well-defined stages, each incomplete and unstable in itself, each more complex and diverse in its components and their interactions, until finally there arises what is called the climax community, a combination of species that is self-sustaining and self-reproducing: a mature forest, for example. The more complex and various the community, the more stable and resilient it is. Is such complexity and diversity, then, that we should expect and work towards in our human community? What would a climax community of humanity look like? Are we there yet? I’ll leave these questions open. I’m not here to preach.
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Tuesday, March 08, 2022

BEYOND THE HALLOWED SKY is a Kindle Daily Deal today

Get it here today!
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