The Early Days of a Better Nation

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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Friday, October 13, 2017



Return of the return of the Martians

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2017 I chaired an event with Stephen Baxter on his new book The Massacre of Mankind, the first and only authorised sequel to The War of the Worlds. Baxter's account of his book and its inspiration was enlightening, wide-ranging, and sometimes surprising. The event is now available as a podcast, and well worth a listen -- even if you were actually there, because you can hear everything much better than you probably did on the day. Like the book, the podcast is better than the original.
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Thursday, October 12, 2017



Six reviews and an interview

My latest novel The Corporation Wars: Emergence (Amazon UK / US) has had some good reviews, in Scotland on Sunday and on the blogs of Forbidden Planet, Blue Book Balloon, Geek Chocolate, and SF Crowsnest.

For those who'd like to know how the story has shaped up so far, the first two volumes in the trilogy were reviewed by Paul Di Filippo in Locus. I've been interviewed about the latest book and the trilogy as a whole at MyLifeMyBooksMyEscape.
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Tuesday, September 26, 2017



The Corporation Wars: Emergence, and other coming attractions

The Corporation Wars: Emergence, the final volume in the Corporation Wars trilogy, is due to be published on Thursday 28 September. It's available for pre-order on Amazon UK, and Amazon US. Last Sunday it got a long and appreciative review in Scotland on Sunday, so I have high hopes for it.



I'll be talking about it, the trilogy as a whole, and no doubt much else, at two forthcoming events. The first is at Portobello Book Festival on Saturday 7 October (17:30-18:30, Portobello Library, free).

The second is on Tuesday 17 October at Waterstones, Bath (18:15-19:45), which has a strong record for hosting SF events.

Speaking of events, the book's Event Horizon launch (below) was a blast, with a wide-ranging conversation ably steered by Andrew J Wilson and with book sales and signings organised by Transreal (which now has signed copies in stock). Shoreline's next Event Horizon, on Tuesday 10 October, looks set to exceed even their usual standard of brilliance and panache.
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