© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
Feature Interview: Ken MacLeod (cont)
Ken: The series came about because I wanted to break away from the Fall Revolution books and do something space-operatic, with a set-up that could work across lots of books. The basic ideas in it go back to some notes I'd made about twenty years earlier, where I was trying to come up with some spurious rationalization of grey aliens and flying saucers and those huge cigar-shaped motherships which have been so sadly missing from our skies since the 1950s. The grays had to be terrestrial in origin, and the suspicion falls naturally on some kind of small bipedal dinosaur-descendant. The motherships had to be big and covered with lights because their crews needed plenty of room and communicated with patterns of light. Giant squids fitted the bill and, obviously, they couldn't have made it into space on their own, no matter how smart they were, so they had to have been (to use David Brin's term) uplifted. At the time I wrote a short story called 'The C Shore' (real sophisticated pun there) which I never even typed up, but which - looking back - had a surprising number of elements I later used in Engines of Light.
SFR: How much from the first book got wrapped up in Dark Light? How far does the series go?
Ken: Dark Light provides some answers, and raises new questions. It also has its own stand-alone validity as an adventure, and in its themes. The book I've just finished, Engine City, essentially wraps the series - we find out what happens to the major characters, and we get answers to the major questions. It leaves open the possibility of further books set in the same universe, but if it turns out to be the last, it's a good ending.
SFR: I've been a fan since I read my first MacLeod, but I cant remember which one it was because, as I recall, they got published out of sequence in the US. How did that happen?
Ken: My first novel was The Star Fraction, but the first to be published in the US was my third, The Cassini Division. Patrick Nielsen Hayden at Tor had liked the first two, but he was very enthusiastic indeed about The Cassini Division, and he felt it was more accessible to US readers than The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal. I think he was right. The Cassini Division spawned wild spinning threads on the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written, about AI and ethics and economics. Readers either defend or detest its heroine. Some claim I wrote it as a savage satire against her views, or that I identify totally with them. I mean, what more could a writer ask for?
SFR: Looking at your bio, I noted that you were born August 2, 1954, 28 days before me (Happy Birthday, by the way). That got me to wondering how you viewed some of the significant science/SF moments of the last forty odd years, how they looked from the other side of the pond.
Ken: I spent my childhood on the Isle of Lewis, on the north-west coast of Scotland, where my father was a Presbyterian minister. Lewis is all hills and lochs and long sandy beaches and peat-bogs, and somewhere in all that there are fields and farms, cattle and sheep, and ten thousand people, and I never saw anybody poor until my family moved to Greenock, an industrial town on the Clyde, when I was ten. By poor I mean kids with deficiency diseases, kids with ringworm, old people with bow legs because they'd had rickets in childhood.
Sputnik is one of my earliest memories. I didn't understand it, in fact I was scared of it, which in a three-year-old is perhaps forgivable. I distinctly remember a cartoon by Giles, the famous cartoonist of the Daily Express, showing some kids looking down at this spiky ball in a smoking hole in the ground. And not long afterwards, we had plastic 'Sputnik' egg-cups that were hemispherical with three little spiky legs. These are trivial, tiny things, but they indicate how it really was a huge event.
I remember Gagarin's flight, and his visit to London, and huge crowds turning out - which I couldn't understand: he was Russian, he was an enemy, wasn't he? And newspaper clippings and photos of Gagarin on the walls of my primary school.
Later space flights I followed as best I could, though not always in real time. I remember the horror when Grissom, White and Chaffee died in the Apollo 1 fire, and shortly afterward Komarov was killed on re-entry, and some years later Dobrovolsky, Volkov, and Patsayev. I watched the launch of Apollo 11 live, and the return, but I couldn't get to a television to see the landing live. I'll always have a pang about that! I was enormously excited about the moon landings.
Another thing I remember from when I was about ten or eleven was one morning my mother telling me, in a somewhat fraught voice, that Russian scientists had detected signals from an alien civilization. Off I went to school, very excited, watching the skies. When I got home I checked every page of the Daily Express for the story, and then noticed what I'd somehow missed, the enormous headline on the front page: SIGNALS FROM SPACE.
A false alarm, alas.
SFR: When did you start reading SF? Do you remember your reaction to the first SF story you read?
Ken: I suppose the very first SF novel I read, at the age of eight or nine, was one of the Kemlo books by Hugh Elliot (I think that was his name) and it was perhaps best forgotten. Likewise Patrick Moore's Mars novel, which I re-read a few years and wish I hadn't. But at that time they were adventure stories among others, not something I thought of as special. I was much more keen on sea stories, war stories, the Biggles books and so on.
No, the first real SF I read was when I was twelve or thirteen. It was Alan E. Nourse's Rocket to Limbo. It had generation ships, FTL drives, and PSI powers. 'The Koenig Drive had given Man the stars." This was the real stuff! It went straight to the vein and into the brain and sent me out for another fix. It also got me staring at suspended light fixtures and trying to make them swing By The Power of the Mind Alone, but let's just pass lightly over that.
SFR: Who were your biggest influences?
Ken: I worked my way through every SF book in the public library, from Aldiss to Zelazny. Heinlein had a big effect, maybe not or not only a literary influence; there's that sense of a thought-through future society and future history, which he pioneered. In terms of direct influences, of people I wanted to emulate when I started writing - many years before I started writing seriously - it was the British New Wave writers - J. G. Ballard, John Brunner and M. John Harrison in particular - that I most admired. But after reading almost nothing but SF through my teens, I read almost none in my twenties and thirties - apart from Iain Banks's novels, which were then mostly manuscripts - until I found an interview with William Gibson in Interzone, and went and read Neuromancer. Suddenly SF was new and exciting again.
SFR: What do you think of media SF? Are there any non-written forms that have produced stuff you like?
Ken: Film and TV, sure. I've liked almost all the big SF films of recent decades, and quite a few of the obscure ones - Repo Man, The Quiet Earth, Night of the Comet, Scanners. I'm too disorganised to be a regular watcher of television series, but the bits I saw of Babylon 5 were impressive.
SFR: You've mentioned William Gibson, as someone whos work influenced you. What do you think of Neil Stephenson? His computer background makes it seem like youd both speak the same language. Did you like Cryptonomicon?
Ken: I liked it very much. Stephenson speaks computer much more fluently than I do. He's the only writer whose expository digressions are fun. You don't want him to stop. I read Snow Crash when I was between drafts of The Star Fraction, working my way down a mental checklist - anarcho- capitalism, enclaves, drugs, mind viruses, virtual reality - and I was thinking that if he had Trotskyism in there as well I'd just call it a day.
SFR: When did you get your first story published? How did that come about?
Ken: I never got anywhere with short stories until after my first novel was published. I wrote very few, and sent off even fewer, and they got rejected. For very good reasons. The last one I sent to Interzone got a friendly rejection letter, suggesting I try small local SF zines. I sent it to my small local SF zine, and *they* rejected it. At that point I gave up and wrote a novel.
SFR: Have any editors or authors been active influences in your writing?
Ken: Iain Banks read the drafts of my first two novels more less as they were being written, just as I had done when he was writing his before he got published. Like me, Iain was more of an encouragement than a help. He wasn't criticising, he was saying 'let's have more of this'. I sent the second draft of The Star Fraction to his agent, Mic Cheetham, who sent me a card saying, basically, 'love the details, where's the plot?' I met her for lunch some weeks later and after a lot of patient explaining and blows on the head with the clue-stick of enlightenment she managed to get across to me that having the plot as a sub-text was not a good strategy.
So I spent that summer writing it again, she took it to John Jarrold, and he offered a two-book contract. Now that was an active influence! He and my subsequent editors have often spotted major plot logic holes, which with a lot of frantic thinking and very little actual change to the text I've managed to debug. I hope. Tim Holman at Orbit is very good at this, as well as spotting swathes of irrelevance.
SFR: Do you have many friends in the UK SF writing community? Are you part of a movement?
Ken: I know a lot of the SF writers in Britain, mostly through meeting them at cons, and get on well with all of them. Iain Banks and I have been friends since high school. In the Edinburgh area there's Charlie Stross, and Andrew J. Wilson, who writes sort of weird fiction mostly, and reviews, and who is the focus of a writing group and a group of fans who meet in a pub every week.
No way are any of us part of a movement, though some time in the future critics may look back at Edinburgh around the turn of the century and talk about the school of writers who flourished in its dank, dim pubs.
SFR: I've been told never to go pub crawling with authors from the UK, as theyll drink a Yank under the table. True? Do you hang out in pubs much?
Ken: It's true, yes. I don't hang out in pubs much, I go out for a drink with friends who are SF fans and writers maybe every week or fortnight.
SFR: Ok, so what is postmodernism? Are we/you pomo, or have you moved on to something else? (e.g. is a fanboy/pomo fusion happening in current SF)
Ken: Postmodernism strikes me as a set of partial and contradictory claims, which together make the grand claim that partial and contradictory claims are all we can ever make, and that all grand claims are false. I don't buy it for a minute.
SFR: Is a technological society sustainable?
Ken: In the long run, only a technological society is sustainable.
SFR: Which of your characters comes closest to you political leanings?
Ken: That's a difficult question. I suppose Matt Cairns, in Cosmonaut Keep, is the closest. He's a kind of pragmatic libertarian socialist.
SFR: Which culture will assimilate which? Communism, Capitalism, or Islam?
Ken: Capitalism will assimilate everything that exists in the world today, no question. The interesting question is what happens then. Professor Meghnad Desai of the London Schoolo of Economics has recently written an interesting book called Marx's Revenge, in which he argues that what happens then is that capitalism begins to press hard against its limits, and socialism comes on the agenda for the first time.
Ken: Islam is a religion, not a mode of production, and is not counterposed to capitalism. Communism is a potential mode of production which, in the words of Lenin, 'requires the joint efforts of several advanced countries, which do not include Russia'. Well, today Russia is arguably an advanced country, but it could only reach socialism through joint efforts with other advanced countries. Stalin's 'socialism in one country' was always a utopia, and a reactionary one at that. There was never the slightest chance of the Stalinist states assimilating the capitalist countries. Nor is there the slightest chance now of the Islamic countries assimilating or overwhelming the largely secular West.
The West could destroy itself, and it's possible - if the destruction wasn't universal - that the successor civilization would be Muslim, but then *they* would be 'the advanced capitalist countries' and the religion would have to bend to that - as it was beginning to do, in Moorish Spain for instance, before it was over-run by Christians and sank into a long sulk.
SFR: You don't seem to give faith based cultures much staying power in you fiction, is that because you see them as antithetical to advanced tech and hence limited in their ability to propagate themselves through space?
Ken: I don't see faith-based cultures as antithetical to advanced tech, at all. Islamic societies were among the most advanced in the world in the Middle Ages. There's no reason why a space-going civilization couldn't be religious, so long as the religion's dogmas didn't rule out space exploration. As to my fiction, the future culture in The Sky Road has in the story endured for centuries, and is either Deist or pantheist, and is reaching out to space. The Christian fundamentalist Beulah City, in The Star Fraction, is a kind of like Singapore - repressive, but not anti-technological. The religion that really gets the boot in my books is that of the Greens and 'their evil goddess, Gaia.'
SFR: What are you working on next?
Ken: A stand-alone space opera,
provisionally titled Newton's Wake, set in a fairly distant future
where - this is not a spoiler - the answer to the Fermi question 'where are
they?' has turned out to be the same as the answer to the 'where is it?'
question about the missing mass. The aliens *are* the missing mass. Ninety
percent of the universe has long since been turned into thinking machines,
and all that we can see is the remaining wildlife preserve. Welcome to the
|Ernest Lilley is Editor and Publisher of SFRevu. He also writes about technology in his publication TechRevu (www.techrevu.com) as well as being a frequent contributor in online and print publications like Byte.com, Digital Camera, Pen Computing and others. He likes station wagons with stick shifts, PDA's with keyboards, and SF with ideas.|