The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Alien encounters, this week and next

This Friday, 8 August, I'm giving a talk on Saucers, Skeptics and Science Fiction as part of a daily series of free Fringe Festival events, Skeptics on the Fringe.

I'll be talking about how I became fascinated by the UFO phenomenon in my childhood, believed all kinds of rubbish about it in my teens, how I eventually became a sceptic myself -- and why I've nevertheless drawn on the UFO mythos for several books, from my much reprinted novella The Human Front to my latest novel Descent.


Friday 8 August 2014, 7:50 pm - 8:50 pm
Banshee Labyrinth, 29-35 Niddry Street

The following Wednesday, 13 August, 9.30 pm is the time and Charlotte Square is the place for 'Breathing Life Into Zombies', an Edinburgh International Book Festival event featuring me and the vastly more famous and prolific writer Mike Carey, talking about and no doubt reading from our respective recent novels of dystopia and conspiracy.

Details and tickets here.

Finally, here's my schedule for the long weekend of 14 August to 18 August, at the London Worldcon:


Friday 10:00 - 11:00, London Suite 5 (ExCeL)

Ken MacLeod, Stephanie Saulter

Autographing 7 - Ken MacLeod

Friday 12:00 - 13:30, Autographing Space (ExCeL)

What is I?

Saturday 16:30 - 18:00, Capital Suite 14 (ExCeL)

What is consciousness? What is it that we think we are? What does science, religion, mysticism say about this, and are we any closer to working out what 'I' is? Ken MacLeod (Moderator), Tim Armstrong, Russell Blackford, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Martin Poulter

Iain M. Banks, Writer and Professional

Sunday 11:00 - 12:00, Second Stage (ExCeL)

A panel led by Ken MacLeod discusses the career and works of our Guest of Honour, Iain M. Banks.

Ken MacLeod (Moderator), David Haddock, Michelle Hodgson, John Jarrold, Andrew McKie

Reading: Ken MacLeod

Sunday 17:00 - 17:30, London Suite 1 (ExCeL)

The Politics of the Culture

Monday 11:00 - 12:00, Capital Suite 7+12 (ExCeL)

In her review of Look to Windward, Abigail Nussbaum suggests that the central paradox of Iain M Banks' Culture is that it is "both a force for goodness, freedom, and happiness in the galaxy, and an engine of its citizens' selfish, childish needs to imbue their lives with meaning, to which end they will cause any amount of suffering ... both are true, and both are reductive." To what extent is the Culture, as a political entity, built around this unresolvable duality? How do the Culture novels grapple with the contradictions at the heart of this utopia? And how do the actions of the Culture connect with the more immediate political choices we face in the present world?

David Dingwall (Moderator), Rachel Coleman, Ken MacLeod, Gemma Thomson, Lalith Vipulananthan Lal
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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Imagining Future Scotlands

A surprising proportion (now that I come to think of it) of my stories are set at least partly in Scotland -- of the novels, the only exceptions are The Cassini Division, Dark Light, Engine City and Learning the World, and all but the last of these have characters whose adventures began in Scotland. I explored some of the reasons for this in an essay, The Future Will Happen Here, Too in an issue on Scottish speculative fiction of The Bottle Imp, ezine of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies.

I'll be talking about how I (and other SF writers) have imagined future Scotlands, reading from my latest novel Descent, being interviewed by Barbara Melville and answering questions tomorrow evening (Wednesday 15 July, 7 pm to 8.30 pm) at a Scottish Writers' Centre event at:

Scottish Storytelling Centre 43-45 High Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1SR 19:00 – 20:30

Tickets £6 (£4 conc) here.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

An argument against Scottish independence

The debate on Wednesday night went well. The venue was friendly, informal, hospitable and efficient. The Scottish Artists Union, which hosted the discussion, drew an engaged audience of its own members and others. Jim Tough of the Saltire Society chaired with a firm but easy hand. The other participants -- Sarah Beattie-Smith and Kevin Williamson for Yes, and Ewan Morrison for (I think) Undecided-edging-towards-No -- put their points across sharply. No punches were pulled, and despite or perhaps because of that everyone stayed friendly and civilised -- we had a good conversation afterwards at the bar at the back. I like and respect all the other participants, all of whom I've met before -- which, I suggest below, is part of the problem with independence, but there you go.

Forewarned by past debacles, where I learned the hard way that spontaneity can wither in the spotlight and that (for me anyway) irony and hyperbole work better on the page than in the hall, I wrote out all I wanted to say beforehand. It was too long but I managed to say the gist of it, in my presentation or in response to questions and comments from the floor. The event was recorded and no doubt will appear on video at some point.

Here's what I said, more or less.

Every country is affected by the financial crash of 2008. Trillions in public funds have been advanced to save the banks. The resulting debt and deficit is used as an excuse to cut services to those who need them most. This is the case in just about every country, whatever its political system.

Climate change is visible to the naked eye and felt on the naked skin. Military instability is on the news every night. There have been times in the past few months when it seemed that some governments had decided to reverently commemorate the First World War by having it all over again.

None of these are problems to which Scottish independence is an answer.

There is a core of about a quarter to a third of the Scottish electorate that will support independence no matter what. The task for independence supporters is to push that up to 50% of the vote plus one on September 18th.

To do that the Yes campaign has to do two things. With its right hand it has to persuade better-paid workers, professionals and business people that not much will change: hence into the EU and NATO, keep the pound and the Bank of England as lender of last resort, keep the monarchy, and keep a high level of social provision without having to pay high taxes. At the same time, with its left hand as it were, it has to persuade lower-paid workers and poor people - those most likely to support independence, and least likely to vote - that much will change for the better. It has to persuade localists to vote for Brussels, pacifists to vote for NATO, greens to vote for oil dependency, socialists to vote for the City of London and republicans to vote for the Queen. Needless to say, the official Yes campaign can't do both at once, and doesn't even try. It keeps its left hand behind its back.

That's where the pro-independence left, both green and red, comes to the rescue. They canvass the housing estates telling people that Britain is for the rich and Scotland can be ours, and that setting up a new capitalist state in NATO and the EU and under Her Majesty and the City of London is a step towards a green socialist antiwar republic. Funnily enough they're finding forty percent saying they're undecided, double the numbers in the polls. I can think of a few reasons for that!

Let's look at the claim that the SNP government is more progressive than Labour. In some respects, notably opposition to the war in Iraq and to nuclear weapons, it is. But even these are partial - it has no objection to the war in Afghanistan, and no objection to nuclear weapons as long as they're not in Scottish waters. The claimed universal benefits are paid for out of taxes that Holyrood doesn't have to raise, and by cuts to services. Free university tuition is paid for by cuts to Further Education colleges. The council tax freeze is paid for by cutting local services. Free prescriptions are paid for by pressure on other parts of the health service. Free personal care is paid for by running the carers off their feet. Does the pro-indy left expose these as middle class tax breaks at the expense of the less well off? Do they heck. Instead they seize on and amplify every shameless SNP distortion of what Johann Lamont says. Everything is subordinated to getting out a Yes vote, and that means subordinated to the SNP.

Any idea that after a Yes vote Labour, let alone the smaller parties of the left, will be in a position to challenge a triumphant SNP's political dominance or its policies, including whatever it has up its sleeve in the very likely event that all is not plain sailing, is a complete delusion. The SNP would rule the roost for a generation. Its first decade at least would be dominated by acrimonious disputes with the remaining UK over divvying up the assets, with all the love and forebearance you'd expect in a messy divorce combined with a family fall-out over an inheritance. All this national bickering and bourgeois beancounting is not going to make politics on either side more progressive by any measure. To expect, as Irvine Welsh did the other day, that people in the remaining UK would respond to Scottish independence by moving towards a more generous, a deeper and more radical democracy is another delusion. A carnival of reaction north and south is more likely.

How are artists likely to fare under such a government? Well, if you look forward to being dependent on the goodwill of a nationalist cultural apparatus in a small country where everybody knows everybody and memories are long, an SNP hegemony might be just the thing. If you relish the relentless polarization of every last issue of culture and society and nature and beauty along the axis of the national question, go for it. And if the pro-independence artists and creatives protest, as my friends here surely will, that this is not what they want at all, I would respectfully suggest that calling themselves National Collective and Bella Caledonia is not the way to reassure us. If you thrill to the vision of the future that these names evoke, knock yourself out.

But I think most artists would prefer to keep their independence. I'm voting No.
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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Scottish Artists Union Independence Discussion Forum

I'll be taking part tomorrow evening (Wednesday 25 June) in a discussion hosted by the Scottish Artists Union at the Stereo, a lively cafe/bar venue in the centre of Glasgow. 6 pm, free.

The lucky citizens of Glasgow have the opportunity to hear another argument over independence the same evening:

Sadly I can't be at both, but I'll be at the first.
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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Science fiction and the exploration of dangerous ideas

Exploring the freedom of expression that Science Fiction writing offers.

Nnedi Okorafor (Who Fears Death, winner of the World Fantasy Award 2011) and Ken MacLeod (Intrusion and most recently Descent) will discuss their favourite pieces of provocative SF from their own works and others followed by an audience Q and A, and signings.

Event chaired by Stuart Kelly.

Tonight! Free! Book tickets!
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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Reach for Infinity

I have a short story in Jonathan Strahan's new anthology, Reach for Infinity, which is now available for pre-order (US/UK). The third in a well-received hard-SF series (preceded by Engineering Infinity and Edge of Infinity), this anthology deals with the next stages of humanity's expansion into the Solar system.


Introduction by Jonathan Strahan

"Break My Fall" by Greg Egan
"The Dust Queen" by Aliette de Bodard
"The Fifth Dragon" by Ian McDonald
"Kheldyu" by Karl Schroeder
"Report Concerning the Presence of Seahorses on Mars" by Pat Cadigan
"Hiraeth: A Tragedy in Four Acts" by Karen Lord
"Amicae Aeternum" by Ellen Klages
"Trademark Bugs: A Legal History" by Adam Roberts
"Attitude" by Linda Nagata
" Invisible Planets" by Hannu Rajaniemi
"Wilder Still, the Stars" by Kathleen Ann Goonan
"'The Entire Immense Superstructure': An Installation" by Ken MacLeod
"In Babelsberg" by Alastair Reynolds
"Hotshot" by Peter Watts

As its title suggests, my own contribution is a little more experimental in form and content than most of my short stories, and I'll be interested to see what readers think of it.

Reviews of the collection here (from which I lifted the contents list) and here.
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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Reviews of Descent

My novel Descent (Amazon / Orbit / Guardian) has by now gathered a fair crop of reviews. There's one in the current issue of Interzone which I haven't seen yet but fingers crossed.

The Financial Times called it 'politically engaged, brimming with smart ideas and shot through with a mordant wit.' From a newspaper on the other side of the class struggle, Matt Coward in the Morning Star says: 'MacLeod’s fiction is always — above all else — humanist and this vivacious and constantly entertaining novel strongly suggests that we would all do better learning to recognise love and friendship when they are staring us in the face, rather than getting ensnared in the ultimately barren webs of the conspiracy mongers.'

SFX: 'A big-hearted, richly comic and, for all it often plays scenes for laughs, deeply moral and serious novel.'

Niall Alexander at (and reprinted, if that's the word, at The Speculative Scotsman): 'In both senses—as a skiffy conspiracy thriller and an approachable coming-of-age confessional—Descent is a success in large part thanks to its fittingly conflicted central character ... [rendered] so exceptionally that readers will root for him to come good rather than hope to see him suffer for the sometimes disgusting things he does in service of his obsession.'

Edinburgh blogger Tychy: 'Descent is in fact an ambitious comic novel. It deserves to be thrust before the general reader, rather than being fostered upon a certain clique or market ... a lavish satirical novel, and dazzling in the scope of its moral application.'

SF critic Paul Kincaid at Bull Spec: 'The biggest book of the month has to be Descent by Ken MacLeod (Orbit). Like his previous novel, the Clarke-shortlisted Intrusion, it’s a near-future political novel about the intrusion of shadowy authority figures into ordinary life. This time it starts with what seems to be an encounter with a UFO, but it soon becomes more about issues of belief and control. It has to be said that I don’t think this is anywhere near as good as Intrusion, but as is typical of Ken MacLeod it is a gripping story that forces you to think about some very complex issues.'

Book-bloggers, whether individual or collaborative, have become important enough to actually get sent review copies. One lively and wide-ranging collaborative site is Upcoming4me. They often ask authors to give 'the story behind the story' and mine is here. Their review is here: 'In fact, this is not a novel about alien abductions but about the mystery of Ryan and his fall into confusion. Hence, the descent.'

For Winter Nights has a similar take: 'Ryan enthusiastically embarks on his descent into confusion, dark corners and suspicion. Luckily, his path is much more entertaining for us than it is for Ryan.'

Other online reviews from A Universe in Words, Kafka's Cage, Nudge (also at The Forgotten Geek), The Earthian Hivemind, Concatenation ('This is X-Files meets William Gibson doing a Kim Stanley Robinson; a very much hard to beat combination. Recommended.'), student newspaper York Vision ('It's political sci-fi, and good, original political sci-fi for that matter.'), and that by my friend and fellow Scottish SF writer Jack Deighton, are all in various ways insightful about the story and (to me) gratifying to read.

I was asked about the book and much else in an interview at The LA Review of Books, which was so wide-ranging and well-informed that I could use it as a FAQ. I've also talked about the book in podcast interviews conducted at Galactic Chat by Helen Stubbs and The Scottish Book Trust by Ryan Van Winkle.

Just in, and to wrap up, long-standing left-wing blogger Phil writes: 'Ken's exploration of a world in foment as it segues from neoliberal depression to Keynesian expansion is absolutely flawless, and everything ties up with a little bit left to the reader's imagination.

Near future fiction is a tricky genre to pull off because real world developments habitually threaten speculation. Yet Ken's novels, even the stuff he published in the 90s, remain endlessly contemporary and just slightly beyond our time; out of reach but all the more tantalising for it. Descent is an excellent novel and an excellent way into Ken's works.'
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