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