Ken MacLeod's comments.
The title comes from two quotes:
“Work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation.”—Alasdair Gray.
“If these are the early days of a better nation, there must be hope, and a hope of peace is as good as any, and far better than a hollow hoarding greed or the dry lies of an aweless god.”—Graydon Saunders
To review the memoir of an activist who lived well to the left of official Communism is usually to begin with an apology for its subject's obscurity, and for the difficulty of explaining to the average reader the weight given in the text to storms in teacups and brawls in backstreets. All the more so when the activist concerned was a leading member of an organization usually (though in this case imprecisely) referred to as Trotskyist.
No such apology is needed for Daniel Bensaid's An Impatient Life (Verso, 2013). Quite the contrary. At the time of his untimely death in 2010 Bensaid was France's best-known Marxist public intellectual, and his cast includes a surprising number of names known even in Britain. Many of his minor characters went on to achieve remarkable things in intellectual, cultural or political life, not only in France (and not only on the left). His major arguments are about questions that concern us all, or should. The events he lived through, from the Algerian War of Independence through May 1968 to the rise of a new anti-capitalism and a new Latin American left, continue to shake the ground we walk on. The personal element is related with an eye for the telling detail, the sore spot and the tender touch that would credit a good novelist.
Nonetheless, Tariq Ali is right to say in his foreword that 'Reading much of this material today is like delving into the archives of Atlantis.' (The foreword is followed by an eleven-page list of abbreviations.) Sebastian Budgen, who kindly sent me this review copy, has written an informative and moving overview of Bensaid's life for fellow Atlanteans.
For those unfamiliar with that world beneath the waves, two aspects of Bensaid's memoir may stand out. The first is the remarkable structure: almost every chapter begins with a personal recollection, stage by stage from childhood on, and expands into an erudite theoretical reflection that brings us sharply to the present -- in fact to our present, beyond the narrator's death. From love to Leninism, journalism to Jewishness, Bensaid always has something interesting and original to say.
The second is the truly amazing range of individuals and events that were influenced and affected by the activists and actions noted and footnoted on Bensaid's pages. For anyone interested in the recent past, it's a sustained series of surprising revelations of how the world was in fact changed from the one Bensaid was born in to the one we live in. If we want to change it further, we have a lot to learn from Bensaid's unrepentant self-criticisms.
I have two events at the Glasgow literary festival AyeWrite!. The first, on Friday 4 April, is a panel in memory of Iain Banks, with reminiscences and readings by me, Ron Butlin, and other friends of Iain.
4 Apr 2014 6:00 P.M - 7:00 P.M at the Mitchell Library
The second, on Thursday 10 April, is a conversation between me and Robert Shearman (Dr Who writer, horror writer, former Writer in Residence on the MA Creative Writing course, and all-round good guy) on what the future holds and the present conceals.
10 Apr 2014 6:00 P.M - 7:00 P.M at the Mitchell Library
industrial civilization has never existed before, and while highly
interdependent it seems to contain enough redundant links to make it resilient.
A lot of horrible things could happen, but it would go on. Some civilizations
do go on for thousands of years. China and Egypt spring to mind, but even
Europeans could just about get away with claiming that the Roman Empire is
still around, and they're living in it. That said, there are imaginable if
unlikely events that could knock over civilization across a wide area or even
the world without necessarily wiping everyone out. A limited nuclear war or an
unstoppable plague or an asteroid impact or a big coronal mass ejection could kill billions and still
leave millions of survivors struggling to cope.
Most of them
wouldn't have a clue what to do. A precondition of an advanced industrial
civilization is a very fine-grained division of labour. This makes astonishing
achievements routine, but necessarily leaves everyone involved a little vague
about the details of what everyone else does. The premise of Lewis Dartnell’s
new book, The Knowledge, is that it’s a manual for the survivors of a disaster
that wiped out 90% of humanity but left the infrastructure basically intact.
What would they need to know in order to survive and start again?
his thought experiment with ‘the grace period’ in which there are still useful
supplies to be got from the cities, and goes on through rebooting agriculture,
food and clothing, medicine, mining, manufacturing, transport, electricity,
communications, chemistry … and so on, all the way to ‘the greatest invention’:
science itself. At each step, he uses his attention-grabbing premise to make
the mundane details of how to make everything from bread to soap to cement to
steel interesting and interconnected. I didn’t know that a lathe is a sort of
von Neumann machine, or that retrieving at least one long-threaded screw from the ruins
is crucial. The conclusion is inspiring, the guide to further reading gives due
recognition to post-apocalyptic SF, and the bibliography can keep you reading
until the asteroid comes.
I can see this
book becoming a manual for writers of post-apocalyptic SF and historical
fiction, steampunk and the like, but far more important is its relevance to the
rest of us in understanding how the world we live in actually works.
I was sent an
advance proof for comment, and I’ve just received a fine hardback with my quote
on the back: ‘This is the book we all wish we’d been given at school: the
knowledge that makes everything else make sense.’ True to my word, that copy’s
going to the nearest high school library. But I’ll buy the paperback and keep
it in easy reach, and in a safe place.
Here's a Scottish Book Trust podcast in which I talk with Ryan Van Winkle about Descent. Kirsty Logan and Tim Sinclair are on before me, also talking about their new books.
I have a review of The Science Fiction Handbook, edited by Nick Hubble and Aris Mousoutzanis (Bloomsbury, 2013) in the Morning Star. Basically I outline the history of SF criticism as I understand it and then heartily recommend the book, which I have read and have already started lending to students.
Date: Thursday 6th March
Venue: Blackwell’s Bookshop, 53-62 South Bridge, Edinburgh, EH1 1YS
I'll be reading from the novel and answering questions and generally talking about it. I've describedDescent as being 'about flying saucers, hidden races, and Antonio Gramsci's concept of passive revolution, all set in a tale of Scottish middle class family life in and after the Great Depression of the 21st Century. Almost mainstream fiction, really.'
The event finishes at 8 pm, and no doubt discussion will continue in one or more of the local pubs.
This event is ticketed, but tickets are FREE. Tickets are available from the front desk at Blackwell’s Bookshop or by phoning 0131 622 8218
For more information or if you would like a signed copy please contact Ellie Wixon on 0131 622 8222 or email@example.com
On this year’s
MA Creative Writing course at Napier University about half the students come
from the US or Germany, and at commencement last September I felt like telling
them how lucky they were as writers to be spending the next year in a country
whose future was up for grabs in that very year, and how the buzz of argument
and excitement around them would light up their work for years to come. How
often, outside of outright revolutionary situations, do writers have a chance
to overhear or take part in passionate and wide-ranging debate about politics
and society in every café or pub or bus queue?
If I’d said
that, of course, the students from Scotland would have laughed in my face, and
the students from other countries would by now have five months of perplexed
disappointment behind them. This month, though, with a few polls showing a
small shift to Yes followed (not coincidentally) by a drumbeat of solemn
warnings from businessmen, bankers, a united front of past, present and
would-be future Chancellors of the Exchequer, and a past Prime Minister about
the economic consequences of separation has set the land loud at last with the
sound of tables thumped, pints splashed and cups and keyboards rattling.
be taken both in advance and from the floor - You can send in your questions to
the panel to Rory Scothorne (firstname.lastname@example.org) who will be chairing, or
with the hashtag #redindyref on twitter.
former SNP deputy leader and author of "In Place of Fear II: A Socialist
Programme for an Independent Scotland".
Cat Boyd, trade
union activist and member of the 'Radical Independence Campaign', a coalition
of the left and far-left seeking independence as a means to achieving a
greener, more equal society.
labour movement activist and member of the 'Red Paper Collective', a
labour-movement campaign seeking to emphasise class above nation in the
science fiction writer and "techno-utopian socialist".’