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.

Q: How likely would it be that a revived anti-capitalist radicalism would take on the old Marxist or Leninist garb, instead of a Green or populist or left-anarchist face?

A: I think that will vary from country to country, depending on how well the various groups that see themselves as Leninist have survived. In Britain, the largest groups to the left of Labor are in fact quite influenced by one form or another of Trotskyism. We even have a Trotskyist member of the Scottish Parliament, Tommy Sheridan, who's actually quite popular. He is the member of the Scottish Parliament for the Scottish Socialist Party, which is capable of contesting elections at least.

Q: So how sympathetic are you now to socialist ideas in general, and how much to libertarian ideas?

A: I think definitely more libertarian than socialist. I'm not entirely convinced on the question of whether a non-market economy is viable or not, but I haven't seen new evidence that it is. All the obvious problems of socialism that were raised in the 19th century by everybody from Bakunin to John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, and so on–you can read all of these, and they all seem astonishingly prescient.

Where I disagree with a lot of libertarian rhetoric is the assumption that socialism is finished. Whether it's a good or bad thing, I don't think it's finished at all. I also don't think that the questions that gave rise to the socialist movement in the first place have gone away.

Q: What are the most pressing of those?

A: I suppose the most urgent one is the question of war. You get this glib libertarian argument that war has nothing to do with capitalism because war is the business of the state, blah, blah, blah. I think that's just nonsense. Even a minimal state is going to make trouble. We can see the outlines of future wars, even world wars, developing.

The other one is the persistence of poverty, and the persistence of economic crises. I think a lot of people who are libertarians now are just libertarians because the stock market is going up, frankly. As long as the market is booming, they'll be pro-market. If there was another depression or something like that, they'd probably change their tune pretty damn quick.

Q: You've said that each of the books in your series undermines the other ones.

A: Absolutely. The Star Fraction almost puts forward a conspiratorial interpretation of events, and in The Stone Canal, that's dismissed; all the events of The Star Fraction are alluded to in a passing paragraph. Jonathan Wilde, the hero of The Stone Canal, lives his entire life convinced that his socialist parents were wrong, and then comes back to a socialist Solar System in The Cassini Division. And finally, in The Sky Road, that world of The Cassini Division is, from the point of view of the characters, something to be fought against by any means necessary.

Q: The Sky Road seems to suggest that the anarcho-communist federation in The Cassini Division is guided by an artificial intelligence. That puts a different spin on the moral decision made at the end of The Cassini Division: It implies that you're not choosing between human beings and godlike artificial intelligences. You're choosing between two AI-directed societies.

A: Not many people have spotted that. The irony of The Cassini Division is that it's a war of one artificial intelligence against its rivals.

Q: You also seem to view the Greens more positively in The Sky Road than in the earlier books in the series. But they seem to be different Greens, because they don't ban technology or persecute scientists, let alone empty the cities like Pol Pot. Do you see them as the same group taking a different path, or essentially a different group altogether?

A: They are the descendants of the "barbarians" who appear in the other books, but they've been influenced in a more humanist direction, partly by some of the people involved and partly by the necessities of survival. The Star Fraction is full of venom against the "Green slime," partly because I was really, really pissed off at the time at people like animal rights terrorists and these "deep Greens"–in fact, I still am, I don't withdraw a single word against these people–but there are more humanist-oriented ecologically concerned people, and they become the foundation of the new society in The Sky Road.

Q: What's your next novel about?

A: My next novel, Cosmonaut Keep, is the beginning of a new series. Its start-off point is a rather different mid-21st century, where instead of Russia collapsing into a social black hole, which is the premise of the other four books, they actually get their act together and become an expansionist power again, under a notionally communist government, and then roll over Western Europe. So by the time the story starts, there's a European union from Vladivostok to Lisbon, and an America divided between isolationists and imperialists. The hero escapes from Europe with some information relating to a discovery the Russians have announced, a complex form of intelligent life within an asteroid. And the story escalates from there.