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
"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.
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 Tor.com (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.'
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.'
This Friday, 23 May at 7.30 I'm at Dumbarton Library for a panel at the West Dunbartonshire literary festival Booked!, with Stuart Kelly and Farah Mendlesohn, celebrating Iain (M.) Banks. Stuart and Farah have written numerous reviews and critical articles on his books, and besides having known Iain personally they've each conducted in-depth interviews and shared public discussions with him.
I'm for a No vote in the Scottish independence referendum. This sets me at odds with a lot of my friends, and against the grain of my demographic: if you're a left-wing writer or artist in Scotland, you're more or less expected to be a Yes voter.
There's a conservative case for the union of Scotland and England, ably articulated by (e.g.) Adam Tomkins and more plangently by Simon Schama. For those of us to the left of these scholars there's a lot to disagree with or question in their arguments, and much to consider -- depending on how much importance you attach to the mere material condition of the working class, which on any reckoning will take a big hit from a split. The official Better Together campaign argues along likewise conservative lines. It gets a lot of flack from the Yes side for being negative, a good indicator that being negative works.
There are also radical, left-wing arguments for a No vote. The pro-independence left has high hopes, stirring rhetoric and uplifting visions. Its radical wing is a raft lashed together from the wreckage of three (at the last count) far-left sects. The anti-independence left has page after page of dry facts and figures about ownership, finance, manufacturing, EU laws, employment patterns, energy production, and political and social attitudes. Its radical wing comes from the mainstream left of the labour movement.
The Red Paper group of academics, activists and trade unionists has gone into the details of Scotland's political and economic situation, and published a substantial body of evidence and argument that an independent Scotland would have even less 'control over its own affairs' than it has now, for the obvious reason that the big economic and political decisions would continue to be made outside it. The argument is concisely put by Tom Morrison in today's Morning Star. More of the broad (and some of the narrow) left case along these lines can be found at Socialism First.
The sociologist and media analyst Greg Philo has investigated social consciousness and attitudes north and south of the Border, and found little to cheer about. The prospect of a decade (at least) of bickering and blaming between a newly independent Scotland and an embittered and inward-looking rUK, with national differences deepening by the day, is a grim one for left or even liberal politics.
All this may be irrelevant to the outcome. Labour lawyer Ian Smart argues (from hard-won experience as an election foot-slogger) that debates, speeches and public meetings serve to enthuse your own side, not to convince the other. All the No campaign has to do, he says, is keep hammering away at the inadequacies of the SNP/Yes campaign, and get out the vote.
As he also likes to remind us, there is no room for complacency. I agree, but like him I still think the outcome will be No. If I'm wrong I'll accept that I'm living in the early days of a worse nation, and continue to work as if I lived in the early days of a better one.