Ken MacLeod Interview
by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Interview ISBN/ITEM#: INTKMacLeo
Date: March 2006 / Show Official Info /
SFRevu: I've got to confess that I'm not quite finished with Learning the World, which came out in the UK last August, but has just reached our shores. I'm about at the point where the colonists separate from the habitat (which isn't much of a spoiler) and I'm really starting to enjoy it, so much so that I can't quite bring myself to peek ahead and find the answer to this question. Is it a trilogy? How did it come about? Where's it going?
Ken MacLeod: It isn't a trilogy, but I want to keep open the possibility of sequels and - especially - prequels. The Civil Worlds in the background of the book are a very inviting venue for all kinds of stories, and in fact I've already written one short story, "Lighting Out", for an anthology of YA SF.
As to how it came about: the year before last I had just finished an outline of a quite different novel, and just as I was going to tell everyone about it I had the idea of a two-generation generation ship, and the idea of the fuel tank becoming the increasingly comfortable habitat, and that was it.
SFRevu: So, I've noticed that you keep coming back to the UFO/Alien Visitor thing, though from the other side of the coin. When I ran into you at Boskone I gave you a copy of Frank Scully's book (but I've forgotten the title) on the government coverup for the Roswell incident, have you ever been to Roswell? What's your take on the whole UFO thing? By the way, there's a nice piece of work by one of your countrymen on the subject, Aliens: Why They Are Here, that I reviewed last year.
Ken: I missed that one but I'll check it out. I've never been to Roswell. My own take on the UFO thing is that it's not one thing. It's a modern myth, compounded of hoaxes, mistakes, unusual natural phenomena, and sightings of secret military aircraft. There has been some recent evidence that the USAF was not at all unhappy that people were seeing flying saucers instead of test flights.
SFRevu: Yourself included, the UK keeps turning out brilliant writers, while US writers seem a bit pale by comparison. We're quite good at blowing things up, but often our SF seems to lack a certain depth. Or is it just me?
Ken: Vernor Vinge, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Neal Stephenson are writing books that have greater depth than anything I've written. That almost certainly also applies to other US writers I haven't read yet. What I think UK writers, myself included, have at the moment is that we are writing the sort of SF that used to be associated with the US and very much not with the UK: space opera obviously, but also hard near-future techno SF and gung-ho social satires - you can see these in Paul McAuley and Richard Morgan, for instance. There's a definite upsurge in UK SF writing, but it's in new modes of fantasy writing - the whole New Weird phenomenon, as well as in other modes - that I think the UK is for the moment in the lead.
SFRevu: On the other hand the last female UK author I can remember of note was Mary Shelly...though Gwyneth Jones comes to mind as well. Is SF in the UK a boys club, or are there lots of terrific women writing that I should be paying more attention to?
Ken: Justina Robson is a terrific writer in SF, and Steph Swainston is a new discovery in fantasy, as is Susanna Clark. Jo Walton now lives in Canada, but I think we can claim her as a British writer, and she's written some great fantasy and has now moved into SF.
SFRevu: It was nice to run into you at Boskone, where you were GoH. What did you think of the con? How do US and UK conventions differ?
Ken: I really enjoyed the con, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the NESFA folk for all they did, and for their wonderful hospitality. The con was well organised and the programming was well-thought-out.
The only other US con I've been to is Minicon, so it's hard to generalise, but the main differences I notice are, one, that US cons have their social centre in the con suite, whereas British cons revolve around the hotel bar - ensuring the supply of beer at the hotel bar is a major issue in British conrunning - and, two, that at US cons there's a more general atmosphere of fannish playfulness. Oh, and there's a strange absence of people wandering around in costumes. You know, I think we could be on to some deep connections here.
SFRevu: When I was a lad it seemed like SF was a good place to get a smattering of science along with some action and adventure. These days, science is pretty much everywhere, and the daring thing that SF is doing is to show alternate political systems. Or maybe it's just that like most American's I only speak US-Corp-Capitalism and anything else seems fantastic and you folks are still channeling Wells. What would you call whatever the folks in LTW are doing? It seems pretty tolerable, actually.
Ken: It's capitalism, but not as we know it. Within each ship there is a society with an explicit social contract, entered into by the founding generation of the ship, which has basically capitalism with a few tweaks to prevent monopoly - including social monopoly - and propertylessness. As the narrator remarks, this kind of contract has developed through millenia of natural selection of ships and societies - social evolution! Naturally the details are very complicated and there is not room on this page, etc, but I got it from some Victorian liberals' visions of the far future - such as Winwood Reade's The Martyrdom of Man, quoted in the epigraph and elsewhere in the text.
SFRevu: Atomic Discourse Gale (I love the naming conventions in LTW) is quite the blogger on the generation starship she grew up on, though at one point she has to fall back and (horrors) print her blog out as a newsletter. Do you think this blog thing has legs? Whose blogs do you follow besides your own. Doesn't blogging take away from time you could have spent doing real writing?
Ken: Yes, it does! I read Antiwar.com, not a blog but a news and comment portal, daily. Also daily: Avedon Carol's The Sideshow, Patrick and Teresa's Making Light, Juan Cole's Informed Comment, and Jim Henley's Unqualified Offerings. For the rest, just look at the list on the sidebar of my blog.
SFRevu: Your blog's name "The Early Days of a Better Nation" makes one think that you think that there's hope yet for a better world. Don't you know there's a war on? Fundamentalists (of all stripes) on the rise? Global warming and economic disaster around the corner? Shouldn't the name of your blog be "If You Can Keep Your Head In The Midst Of All This Confusion, You Don't Understand The Situation". What possible reason could you have to hope for a better world?
Sidebar From Ken's Blog: 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
Ken: As Rigoberta Menchu once said, "People power and [electricity] pylons".
It's obvious that the great majority of the people, including the people of the United States, will at some point react massively against a situation of endless war and economic and environmental crisis, and when they do, we have the technology already, and more that can be developed, for a better world. The very fact that the governments of the US and UK are preparing vast apparatuses of surveillance and control suggests that they expect such a massive popular reaction, somewhere down the line. If it's massive enough, it could swamp them, and that's what I hope for. In the short to medium term, though, we are in for some rough times. And in the longer term, there are no guarantees, but there never were any and we've made it this far. I remain confident that we'll make it to the ships.
SFRevu: You've probably covered this already, but what are you working on next?
Ken: A near-future novel about the rough times ahead. It's called The Execution Channel. Whether it has a hopeful ending is something I won't know until I've written it to the end.
SFRevu: Ken, thank you for taking the time to talk with us.