The Scot on his new space opera and his late friend Iain M Banks

SFX - - News - Words by Jonathan Wright /// Pho­tog­ra­phy by Joby Ses­sions

The SF au­thor whose pol­i­tics seep into his books.

When Ken MacLeod was last sug­gest­ing ideas to his long­time pub­lish­ers, Or­bit, he out­lined a num­ber of sce­nar­ios for nov­els. All of th­ese were for books he’d “thought out very care­fully”. Well, aside from one mad no­tion. “At the last minute this idea of a ro­bots’- eye view of a ro­bot re­volt, in space, came to me and I hacked it on at the end,” he says, “and this was the one my pub­lisher was ex­cited about.”

Ain’t that al­ways the way. More se­ri­ously, as he goes on to de­scribe his ideas for The Cor­po­ra­tion Wars: Dis­si­dence, the first part of his Se­cond Law tril­ogy, you can see why Or­bit’s edi­tors might have been en­thused. Af­ter sev­eral years of mix­ing SF with other gen­res, MacLeod has gone back to imag­in­ing dis­tant vis­tas. With­out in any way diss­ing nov­els such as In­tru­sion and De­scent, it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to see MacLeod, a key fig­ure in the 1980s/ 1990s Brit space opera boom, re- en­gag­ing with hard SF.

In Dis­si­dence, it’s not hu­man­ity that trail­blazes a path to the stars. In­stead, MacLeod fore­sees a fu­ture where big cor­po­ra­tions send ro­bots to work on promis­ing- look­ing exo- plan­ets. “What hap­pens is that be­cause of var­i­ous un­fore­seen con­tin­gen­cies, some of th­ese ex­ploratory ro­bots be­come self- aware and boot up into con­scious­ness, and start do­ing their own thing,” says MacLeod.

Need­less to say, this isn’t sup­posed to hap­pen, but the world govern­ment, The Di­rec­tion, has a plan in place for this con­tin­gency: “to use the up­loaded ‘ brain- states’ of var­i­ous dis­rep­utable char­ac­ters”, for­mer sol­diers from a bit­ter war fought in the late 21st cen­tury, to re- es­tab­lish con­trol.

bit of pol­i­tics

So it is that we see one of th­ese troops, Car­los the Ter­ror­ist, wak­ing up in “a rather old- fash­ioned space colony in a golden age uni­verse”. It’s all too good to be true; this is a train­ing sim­u­la­tion vir­tual re­al­ity, and Car­los soon learns his per­son­al­ity is to be down­loaded into the body of a com­bat ro­bot. “[ Car­los and his co- fight­ers’] ro­bot bod­ies and minds are op­ti­mised,” says MacLeod. “A ques­tion that runs through the book is whether they pre­fer to be ro­bots rather than vir­tual hu­man be­ings in­side sim­u­la­tions. And, af­ter that… it all gets very com­pli­cated.”

In truth, things of­ten do get com­pli­cated in MacLeod’s nov­els, usu­ally be­cause of that most re­cur­ring of his themes, pol­i­tics. Dis­si­dence is no dif­fer­ent. The con­flicts in this fu­ture are in part down to on­go­ing dis­agree­ments be­tween fac­tions once called the Ac­cel­er­a­tion and the Re­ac­tion. Throw in the ques­tion of whether the ro­bots (“by far the [ book’s] most sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ters”) should be free, and you have a rich stew.

Not that MacLeod’s in­ter­est in pol­i­tics is al­ways wholly help­ful. MacLeod has been busy of late in part be­cause he “got a bit caught up in the ag­i­ta­tion around the Scot­tish ref­er­en­dum” rather than writ­ing nov­els. “I was mainly con­cerned with how a large part of the Scot­tish left seemed to think that in­de­pen­dence was the an­swer, or part of the an­swer, and I still don’t,” he says.

He’s in­trigued by the as­cent of Jeremy Cor­byn and Shadow Chan­cel­lor John McDonnell to the lead­er­ship of the Labour Party, but re­jects the idea they’re men of the hard left. “What they are is a prin­ci­pled left, and that’s ac­tu­ally quite a dif­fi­cult chal­lenge for them,” he says. “Cor­byn and McDonnell et al have a very dif­fi­cult chal­lenge to take on be­cause they’re es­sen­tially lead­ing a party where most of the MPs are not in the same frame of mind at all.”

But there won’t be too many blog posts about this. “I’m re­sist­ing get­ting stuck into that,” he adds, “be­cause I know all too well that as a writer pol­i­tics can be a time sink, es­pe­cially if you take on­line stuff se­ri­ously.”

po­etry emo­tion

MacLeod also took time to help edit and pro­mote Po­ems ( 2015), a book that gath­ered up Iain M Banks’ verse, along with po­ems by MacLeod him­self. It’s a fi­nal act in a cre­ative part­ner­ship that dates back to a child­hood friend­ship. Fa­mously, as long ago as the mid- 1970s, Banks out­lined the en­tire plot of Against A Dark Back­ground to MacLeod as the lat­ter helped out with chores at home. It was, MacLeod says, “very touch­ing” to see how much in­ter­est the po­ems gar­nered. “[ The book] does give an in­sight into how Iain thought and how he felt and so on,” says MacLeod. “If you’re in­ter­ested in his writ­ing at all, they’re worth read­ing.”

What do they give us the nov­els don’t? “I sup­pose there’s a kind of lay­ing bare in a more in­ti­mate view,” says MacLeod. “When you’re writ­ing fic­tion, some of your ideas and world­view and at­ti­tudes come through, and they cer­tainly do in Iain’s books, but po­etry comes a bit closer to the bone.”

He still misses Banks deeply. “I miss him [ es­pe­cially] in the sense that I still catch my­self think­ing, ‘ That’s some­thing Iain would like,’” he says. “It came most strongly when I was read­ing his last novel, The Quarry, and ev­ery so of­ten I’d find my­self chuck­ling at some­thing and catch my­self think­ing, ‘ I must men­tion how much I en­joyed that.’”

The Cor­po­ra­tion Wars: Dis­si­dence will be pub­lished by Or­bit on 12 May.

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