Libertarian with a Cause: John Kenny talks to Ken MacLeod
Originally appeared in Albedo One #28 (2004)
Ken MacLeod: No, I find ‘cyberpunkish Heinlein’ is an accurate indication of where some of the influences came from, because I think I recently described the new space-opera, which I’ve been accused of writing, as left-wing SF for people who like right wing SF, or British SF for people who like American SF. That’s kind of it, but obviously when I started reading SF in my teens I raced through almost everything Heinlein had written up to that point. I probably stopped reading it with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I understand is a good place to stop.
So, I don’t know much about his later work. There’s a lot of politics in Heinlein, a lot of conflict and adventure, and that’s what I liked. The fact is that the political philosophies his wise old men expound are at least stimulating. They get you thinking. The professor in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress calls himself a rational anarchist. He poses the question ‘is it ever right for a group to do something that would be wrong for an individual to do?’, and claims that as the central question of political philosophy, which I don’t think it is. However, it’s a very stimulating question. I owe quite a lot to people like Heinlein, Eric Frank Russell and Arthur C. Clarke (to an extent) in thinking about politics at all.
JK: Heinlein would have described himself as a libertarian, socially liberal but economically conservative, very much to the right of the political spectrum when it comes to a whole range of economic issues. In terms of personal and social freedom, though, it’s quite liberal – a peculiar mix. In many of his books, there’s an awful lot of brow beating didactics. He nearly always has a father figure in there who preaches to the reader.
KM: Yes, modern libertarianism in that sense claims to be just a modern version of nineteenth century classical liberalism like you’ll see, for example, in John Stuart Mill. You’ll see the same advocacy of personal liberty and laissez faire economics. Although he was not entirely one hundred per cent on that. Likewise, with people like Adam Smith, who was what we would today call ‘socially’ liberal as well as ‘economically’.
It’s an historical fact that in the 20th century laissez faire economics became considered to be conservative. It remains an open question why that is, or whether it is. There’s still a lot of radical mileage to be got out of questions like free trade against protectionism, monopoly, and so on. When I came across these ideas for the first time in the mid to late eighties, I never actually got them from Heinlein. I’d never seen it all clip together until I came across actual advocates of libertarianism in England. I find it all really exciting, because, for one thing, I came across the Libertarian Alliance in England in 1984 or 1985 quite by accident.
I found that combination quite startling because all I’d ever known were left wingers who were socially liberal, who were into legalising drugs, homosexuality and these kind of things. The right wingers were in favour of freedom for capitalists and very little for anyone else, or so it definitely came across. To see people with badges saying ‘legalise heroin’ on the one hand and Amnesty International reports, and so on, [and] on the other hand all these books about economics by people like Hayek and Von Mises and so on. I found it quite hard to get my head around it, but I did eventually get my head around it and I find it quite exciting because the ideas stimulate science fictional thinking. What would it be like if armies were privatised or the streets were privatised? What kind of society would emerge from that? You’re thinking in science fictional terms already. You’re doing the science fiction thought experiments.
The same is true of Robert Nozick’s classic Anarchy, State and Utopia, which I think is the most academically respectable book on this kind of libertarianism. It fed into my first two books very obviously. At the same time as all this was going on, socialism in Eastern Europe and Russia was collapsing, apparently for reasons that made the free market libertarian critique of socialism seem very cogent about the inability of a planned economy or a command economy to actually deliver the goods. And, also, the other liberal argument that a state-planned economy would necessarily be a repressive state. At the same time, having been through all of that – through various vicissitudes and various sets of initials, a socialist of one kind or another – I didn’t see this as by any means the final triumph of capitalism.
I thought a lot of the Marxist critique of capitalism remains un-shaken and, indeed, validated. I knew that at the end of the Cold War we were not going to get any peace dividend and we were probably not going to get any peace either, and indeed we haven’t.
JK: What’s interesting about your work is that it was tackling political issues in the guise of a story with a beginning, middle and end, and some real characters and real situations. I hadn’t come across that much before in science fiction. Certainly, political ideas were being expounded by Heinlein and one or two others but not as overtly. I think that is what possibly made your work quite different when it arrived on the scene. How does your work go over in the States?
KM: It actually goes over quite well. The one that most US readers found hardest to understand is The Star Fraction partly because it’s largely set in England and Scotland – and cyberspace. It’s just too dense with allusions to British politics and British history to be easily understandable to Americans who aren’t particularly interested in that kind of thing. So it ended up being the third or fourth of my novels to be published in America. On the other hand The Star Fraction won the Prometheus Award for Libertarian SF, which rather surprised me. The Stone Canal did the same and The Cassini Division was shortlisted. So was, as far as I can recall, The Sky Road.
A lot of American readers have picked up on other themes in the books anyway. They’re not solely about politics. There’s a big polemic about artificial intelligence, for example, machine sentience and that kind of thing, that’s sprung out of arguings over The Cassini Division shortly after it came out in America – it was the first to come out over there. That raged on newsgroups for months on end, and wasted lots of my time!
JK: How do you manage your time? Obviously, if you’re going to conventions and the like, there’s a large portion of your time and brainpower that you need to set aside for promotion. Does it take up that much of your time?
KM: No. I usually go to conventions when I’m invited, but sometimes I go because I like going to them. I go to, usually, Eastercon and Novacon in Britain and to whatever other conventions I get invited to. That doesn’t take up an awful lot of my time. What I find does, is agreeing to short projects like writing a short story on commission or doing serious book reviews. One time, a couple of years ago, I got involved in a creative writing course at Lumb Bank. That’s one of the residential courses run by the Arvon Foundation in Britain.
These courses are a great lifeline for authors because essentially they give you £1,000 for a week’s work. Who could turn down that? And it’s very stimulating and very intense because basically you’re workshopping and so on with half a dozen or more students of very different interests, ability, age, background and everything else. Except that they’ve all paid a fairly large sum of money to come and get what they can out of it, so you really owe them a lot of your time and attention.
Something like preparing that course – if it was a week’s work, it probably took me about a month. The build up and then the recovery afterwards. I’ve learned to be very cautious about doing anything like that, particularly when a novel is looming. Taking part in newsgroup discussions is something I’ve stopped doing recently because they took up a lot of time. They also took up a lot of passion, and I thought I was mentally better off without them.
JK: I don’t recall you going through the traditional route a science fiction author takes, i.e. short stories in various magazines for a number of years before you graduate to the novel writing stage. I don’t recall seeing you turn up in Interzone or any other magazines. Did you go straight for the jugular and work on your novels as a starting point?
KM: No, I went straight for the capillary lots of times. I attempted writing short stories and sent the first one to New Worlds when I was very young and later ones to Interzone. They all got turned down and, as I’ve often said before, looking back at them I can see why. The final straw was when Interzone returned a story and suggested, kindly, that I write something for the local small press magazines, and try and develop my short story skills there.
So I sent one to the local small press magazine and when they rejected it I thought, well maybe you’re not so good at short stories! That was around about the same time as I wanted to write a novel. I had finished an M Phil thesis. I knew I had written a book. It had taken years. It had a print run of a dozen but it was a book. I knew I could write something of that length so I decided to start writing a novel just to show myself that I could do it. I’d had ideas for novels for a long time and driven Iain Banks beyond patience.
On occasion, sometimes I’d turn out all these exciting ideas for novels that I’d never got around to writing. He had, of course, an entirely different approach to writing novels; he actually wrote them. So I started writing The Star Fraction and passed things over to Iain chapter by chapter. He encouraged me and asked me to write more and I kept going like that until I eventually had something like 80,000 words in the first draft.
I don’t know why, but I then wrote a second draft and sent the second draft to Mic Cheetham, the agent. She said she liked it, but she had a lot of problems understanding what the plot was and what the motivations for the major characters were. I didn’t understand at all what her problem was with it. I was going down to London for a holiday that summer, so we met up and did lunch. She said, ‘If it was a film what would you put on the poster?’ I thought for a minute and said, ‘it’s a story about a man who gets killed but his gun goes on fighting.’ She said, ‘Yes – now you go off and write that one.’
So I went off and wrote that one. She sold it, so that was how it came about. I tried to get in by the normal route of short stories but I didn’t get there at all. Since then, I have written short stories but they’ve almost all been written to commission for magazines outside the SF field. They certainly pay more!
JK: Slick magazines, the Cosmopolitans of the world?
KM: I’ve never had a story in Cosmopolitan, but I had a short story in The Sunday Times colour supplement special on colonising the moon, and one in Computer Weekly about the future of the IT industry. It was a special issue – fifty years of IT – they wanted a story set fifty years in the future of IT.
Having worked as a programmer I had an idea what it might be like. Imagine myself and all my pals still hacking legacy code in fifty years time. That became the second chapter of Cosmonaut Keep. I might do more short stories in the future, because I’ve had ideas that are probably worth at least, what’s the word, test-bedding in a short story context.
JK: A testing ground for ideas is certainly one valid reason for producing short stories. Quite often you see those stories or the ideas cropping up in a later novel where they’re developed further. However, I think we’re seeing less and less new interesting, challenging SF on the bookshelves these days. It seems they are filled with huge Fantasy multi-volume series. The SF is represented by the Gollancz Classic series. I don’t think it would be that difficult, as it was maybe in the 1980s, to keep up with the best of new SF that’s coming out in book form.
KM: I certainly find it difficult enough because I don’t read SF while I’m writing it, at least not in the same genres I’m writing it in. I find people like Paul McAuley, Alastair Reynolds and M. John Harrison writing intelligently thought-through space opera. It’s a big thing – there’s been a genuine coincidence and convergence of interest in it, and to a degree it’s applying some of the essence and technique learned in the New Wave and in cyberpunk to a galactic scale, a big-scale space opera adventure. I think it’s a good thing. I don’t know whether it’s reached, or is nearing, its peak. It may have done – usually when something gets noticed like this, it’s on its way out.
JK: It’s an interesting phenomenon because it has seemed to me that work by you, Charles Stross, Alastair Reynolds, etc. exists very much separately. You’ve got to go and dig to find it. The concept is being presented through Locus and other channels that this is a movement. Do you feel part of a movement? Is this something that’s been manufactured and imposed upon you and others?
KM: No, I don’t, by any means, think it’s been manufactured or imposed, because we all work fairly independently. There’s a bit of interaction between writers, obviously, because we meet at cons. I meet Charlie (Stross) quite frequently in a pub in Edinburgh. We discuss ideas and often read each other’s books. I was very impressed with Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space when I read it. Not that I thought it was in any way flawless.
But some of the ways in which it treated its subject was… Let me give you an analogy: if cyberpunk was to literature what Blade Runner (the film) was to science fiction films, I think that written SF hadn’t caught up with Alien. The vast grotty spaceships, the sense of great length and distance, deep time and deep space, the very human and very self-interested characters who are just doing a job, out for their own gain one way or another. As far as I know it had not really entered SF in quite that way until Alastair Reynolds’s space operas.
Another huge influence on every one of us was Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix which completely blew me away back when I read it. I think it is a convergence. It’s partly what I suggested in a Locus article: people who had grown up reading the New Wave stuff in Britain, but also reading American SF, had come to a similar conclusion. They wanted something as adventurous as American SF but with as much attention to character and physicality and so on as you got in the New Wave – some attempt at writing that was more than clear transparent Asimovian type prose. We all hit the ground more or less together.
JK: It’s a double-edged sword being identified as part of a movement. If you look at the New Wave and cyberpunk, there’s a certain comfort in being identified as part of a group of writers. Namely, that it can’t hurt sales. But the other side of the coin is that sometimes it can be quite hard to break away from that. It becomes a branding of your work and can prove difficult further down the road when you want to go off and explore different territory or move away, stylistically or concept-wise. The publishers don’t want you to do that.
KM: I haven’t found that. If you look at the careers of people like Paul McAuley or Charles Stross – there’s going to be a lot of Stross novels in the next few years because there’s a build-up – but, you see, quite a diversity in their stories and their style. Certainly, Paul McAuley has explored many different genres of science fiction – near future, far future, future crime, alternate histories. In a way, new space opera may turn out to be like the time when everybody was writing Mars novels. This is the time everybody is writing space opera. It may pass like that. You’ve got Peter Hamilton who has written in very diverse areas apart from his huge space operas – the Greg Mandel SF detective stories and so on. I don’t think there’s a constraint in that way.
JK: What’s next for you?
KM: The next lot of books is a story set in space, but as you say, a breakaway, stylistically and in subject matter and so on. The one that’s coming out next – the one that I’ve just finished – is Newton’s Wake, which is continuing the trajectory away from future Earth-based politics that I began in Engines of Light. It still has some tenuous connection to Earth, but in the next book after that, which is set in a quite different universe, I would like to break that connection entirely. It’s set wholly in the future. It doesn’t have any walking dead people from the twentieth century!
JK: Far future stuff is quite difficult to handle credibly. You can either go way off the mark and come up with something quite phantasmagorical because you’ve no constraints in some ways, but then the challenge is to keep your readers with you and have some point of reference.
KM: Yes. I’d like to write a story set thousands of years in the future but not phantasmagorical. The way to do that is to work more in the tradition of Clarke rather than the New Wave or cyberpunk-type SF. One of the things you see in a lot of Clarke’s work is a clear break with Earth. He’s not fundamentally interested in writing satire, as it were. In many of his short stories he is writing satire, but in his far future books like The City and the Stars and The Songs of Distant Earth, he is looking at a self-contained future society. I’d like to attempt something along those lines. That’s one side of it.
The other side is that if you assume that a lot of the very speculative stuff we’ve been hearing a lot of (and have used a lot of): artificial intelligence, up-loading and so forth, Vinge singularity stuff… if you assume that that is not going to happen you then can get a far future world with recognisably human characters, great slow star trips and exciting stuff like that.
JK: You could get to the stage where technology has developed so far you hit this black hole area. A similar situation to that Clarke maxim that ‘to us looking into the future it might look like magic’. You could possibly have biotechnology and nanotechnology developed to such an extent that it becomes part of the evolutionary process, where people procreate and a child is born with all these bio ingredients in their genetic make-up that allows them to look at a light in the room and it switches on. Where it’s actually some class of technological pheromones that are permeating the air and so on. If you took it to the absolute extreme you could be writing a fantasy novel!
KM: People have gone down that route like a recent novel published by Tor. It’s called The Golden Age, by John C. Wright, in which everybody is living in virtual reality. It sounds like a very confusing novel to read because the landscapes and surroundings change all the time as people’s moods change in a virtual reality. That’s not an area of writing I’d feel very comfortable with myself. The idea of the singularity is the most radical part of this area – of super-human intelligence in a rapidly transforming world.
Vinge is right. If you postulate that, then you have a kind of sound barrier ahead of you where you just can’t get through (Well, Charles Stross is writing his way through that barrier, with the Accelerando stories). You have to find ways around it. One way around it, for example, is to assume that human beings have survived into this post-human universe. That’s what I’ve done in my new book Newton’s Wake where humans are, as Charlie puts it, rats in the walls. That’s the standard rats in the walls scenario! Iain Banks’s Culture novels could be seen as post-singularity novels in which the human survivors are something between parasites and pets, in the care of machines that are kinky enough to want to have human beings around.
There are ways around it. Maybe it’s not true that, by definition, the motivations and behaviour of vastly superior post-human intelligence would be as incomprehensible to us as grand opera is to a tapeworm. This may be so, but on the other hand it may not, because unlike the tapeworm we are rational beings. The doings of vastly superior beings may be at some level comprehensible to us. That is an interesting way of looking at it. You could get a universe where [there are] vastly super-human beings who are nevertheless comprehensible at some level.