Anarchies, States, and Utopias

The science fiction of Ken MacLeod.

Utopian fiction has a bad reputation, much of it well-deserved: Few genres are as congenial to humorless, didactic writing. Most utopias have little room for development, ambiguity, or questions left open, let alone interesting characters or an involving plot. But there are exceptions, many of which have issued from the pen of Ken MacLeod, a Scottish science-fiction writer who doesn’t just question the utopias he builds: If need be, he’ll let them fail.

In a quartet of novels–The Star Fraction (1995), The Stone Canal (1996), The Cassini Division (1998), and The Sky Road (1999)–MacLeod sets up several societies then lets them loose in something akin to the real world, where they can compete, infiltrate each other, and try to come to terms with their internal contradictions. If the traditional utopian uses fiction to express his firmest views, MacLeod seems to be working out ideas as he writes. His books are filled with politics, but those politics, in turn, are suffused with playfulness and contingency.

In part, this reflects his past. In the 1970s and early ’80s, MacLeod, now 46, was an active Trotskyist, and he subsequently spent some time in the British Communist Party. Somewhere along the way, he grew interested in critiques of economic planning; these days, he’s more libertarian than socialist, though he hasn’t rejected the ideals that drew him to the left. He’s still opposed to war and poverty, and still interested in cooperatives and other forms of worker ownership.

The result is a series of books in which theoretically estranged ideas bleed into one another in unusual, inventive ways. Many science-fiction novels have been set in anarcho-capitalist societies, with police protection sold on the market. Only The Star Fraction includes a protection company called the Felix Dzerzhinsky Workers’ Defence Collective, named for the founder of the Soviet secret police. And while both anarcho-communist and anarcho-capitalist worlds have appeared in science fiction, only The Cassini Division shows them making contact and slowly starting to subvert each other.

The books aren’t flawless–an important romantic liaison in The Sky Road isn’t entirely credible, for example–but they’re among the best science fiction being produced today, combining savvy politics and a rich sense of history with complex characters, gripping storytelling, and much humor. (Perhaps one reason the series is popular with both libertarians and socialists is because the libertarians don’t notice the socialist in-jokes, and vice versa.)

Acclaimed in the United Kingdom–The Sky Road won the British Science Fiction Association Award–MacLeod’s novels have only recently begun to appear in the U.S. In August, a few weeks after Tor Books brought out an American edition of The Sky Road, I spoke with its author by telephone.

Q: Your books owe a lot to the utopian tradition, but you seem to take a relentlessly anti-utopian approach to them. No matter how appealing one of your societies might be, it’s going to have a dark side, or several dark sides.

A: I’m pretty much anti-utopian in that sense. The societies I present in a reasonably attractive light only exist in unstable configurations of outside forces. When the balance of forces change, they disappear or change themselves. So no final, stable society is postulated.

Q: Of the social systems you’ve described, do you find one more attractive than the others?

A: My lazy, selfish preference would go to the society in the far-future section of The Sky Road–that rather rural industrial Scotland, which is kind of an idealization of a part of the Highlands where I spent quite a bit of time when I was younger. I knew guys like [the workers in that book], who could do just about anything, who were very literate but also very practical.

Q: The ideological dialogue in the books, especially The Cassini Division, is between capitalist libertarians and anarchists of the left. But the Fourth International is a constant presence as well. Is that an in-joke, or do you see Trotskyism as somehow compatible with libertarian or anarchist currents?

A: Trotskyism is an offshoot of Bolshevism, which is not very libertarian, to say the least. But in the 1960s and ’70s especially, it appealed to a lot of people who had a radical, anti-authoritarian impulse.

The oddest ideologies appealed to that generation. In some countries, Maoism became a very significant movement. In Finland, it was the [Stalinist] Communist Party: A lot of former New Leftists are now what they call "Old Stalies," who have shaved their beards and put on suits and become respectable.

Q: I take it you see the possibility of a socialist resurgence, if capitalism’s stock starts going down again?

A: Yeah, I think that’s a definite possibility.

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