|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Saturday, January 05, 2013
Among the many satisfactions of Ken MacLeod’s fiction is his confidence in literature as a tool of political engagement. Intrusion (Orbit, £18.99) is a vision of life in a near-future Britain where nanny-state supervision has edged into soft-totalitarian surveillance and control. The plot revolves around an expectant mother seeking an exemption from the genetic “fix”, a single pill that guarantees a healthy foetus, but things get rapidly less cheerful from there in this steely, brilliant piece of work. Sidewise Award-winning novella The Human Front, from the enterprising radical publisher PM Press. Like other volumes in the excellent Outspoken Authors series, this edition comes with additional goodies: an interview with me by Terry Bisson and a couple of of my short essays, one of them written specially for this book.
Looking back ... The Human Front features flying saucers and revolution, as does the Engines of Light trilogy. Looking farther back, so did the very first SF novel I set out to write, in my mid-teens. The working title of that premature, immature and now mercifully lost effort was 'The End of Heaven'. I tried to inveigle Iain Banks and another friend into co-writing it. They (wisely) declined. Despite extensive background research, drawing on sources that ranged from Chariots of the Gods to Minimanual of the Urban Guerilla, the draft never amounted to more than a few closely-spaced pencilled pages. Some of it became part of the mulch from which my real first novel grew. It was in quixotic recognition of this that I inflicted on The Star Fraction the abandoned work's banal opening line: 'It was hot on the roof.'
The novel I'm working on, provisionally titled Descent, features a UFO encounter, albeit one that (even as a teenager, when it happens to him) the protagonist doesn't attribute to aliens. It also features a revolution, albeit one so peaceful and legal that most people don't notice it as such at the time. Unlike my previous stories, Descent takes on board the UFO experience as it exists in the real world, rather than elaborating an ironic rationalization of the UFO mythos. Part of its inspiration was a review in Fortean Times of Mark Pilkington's well-received Mirage Men, a book which I've since read and found very useful indeed. Pilkington shows that the story of a government cover-up of the truth about UFOs - the standard X-files trope - is itself a government creation, and is quite deliberately kept going by various governments and intelligence agencies.
You might think from all this that I'm fascinated by UFOs. I'm not. Pilkington's book was - with Neil Nixon's Pocket Essentials on UFOs - the second UFO book I've read in years. As a teenager I read everything on the subject I could find, and by taking everything at face value and trying to make it all fit together, learned that it was a mirage and a mare's nest. (The only SF book to do full justice to this aspect of the phenomenon is Ian Watson's Miracle Vistors, which captures exactly the escalating sense of unreality that takes over any attempt to make sense of it all.) I lost interest in the topic, but kept a vague suspicion that something beyond our present knowledge was behind it all. In my thirties I came across the standard sceptical treatments (starting with Ian Ridpath's classic article and found that there wasn't. Even now, I find myself surprised to learn how much some elements of the standard story - the MIB, for instance - were simply made up.
So like almost all SF writers - as taxi drivers everywhere discover to their astonishment - I'm a rock-ribbed sceptic about flying saucers and little green men. But I still write about them - in fact, off-hand I can't think of any other current SF writer (apart from those writing for film and television and franchises) who has written so much. Maybe Descent will at last get flying saucers and the coming revolution out of my system, but I make no promises.