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Descent by Ken MacLeod

This book is dedicated to the memory of the author’s close friend, Iain (M) Banks, and may be considered as a tribute. It is topped and tailed by two of the protagonist’s dreams, titled respectively 0.1111 Recurring and 0.2222 Recurring. The first of these is very Banksian in tone.

Some time in the near(ish) future Ryan Sinclair and his friend Calum, who has a more demotic form of speech than Ryan, have a close encounter with a strange silver sphere in the hills above Greenock. Ryan thereafter experiences dreams/memories of the classic UFO alien abduction scenario. Calum does not. Both are subsequently visited by mysterious strangers – in Ryan’s case a man calling himself the Reverend James Baxter, a literal Man in Black. Thereafter Baxter figures intermittently throughout the novel. (Quite why MacLeod used the name of perhaps Scotland’s most famous footballer for this character is obscure; to me at least.)

Descent contains simultaneously an exploration and a debunking of the UFO abduction story but is also much more than this. Calum tells Ryan a family history about uniqueness and distancing. In his later life as a freelance science journalist, Ryan uncovers evidence, through fertility statistics, of speciation occurring within humans. This affects Ryan’s life directly in his relationship with Gabrielle, one of Calum’s relatives, whom he meets at a wedding. While Ryan is busy with his Highers* a worldwide change in economic arrangements called the Big Deal saves capitalism from itself by instituting what Calum refers to as a kind of socialism (but if it is, it is very dilute.) The pre-Big Deal revolutionaries evaporate away in this new dispensation where jobs are more abundant, while silver airships and smart fabrics make their appearance. Otherwise people’s activities, drinking, vaping (presumably of e-cigs,) buying, selling, work and relationships are more or less as we know them now. The UFO aspect of his story allows MacLeod to have some fun with government’s response to such manifestations.

The early scenes set in Greenock bear some similarities to Alan Warner’s The Deadman’s Pedal. Both novels have at their start a sixteen year old protagonist, a West of Scotland seaside town setting, a sudden attraction to a girl. The writing of the two novels is comparable also. Descent is a different beast altogether, however. While Warner’s book dealt with politics only obliquely MacLeod has always been a writer whose interest in political ideas has been foregrounded in his fiction. He never lets it get in the way of the story but his engagement with politics is distinctive among SF writers.

In character terms Descent deals with betrayal, revenge and redemption. While the SF elements are necessary to the plot, they could be considered as trappings, scaffolding on which to build the human story.

A nice touch was the inclusion of the phrase, “Gonnae naw dae that,” made famous in Scotland by the TV series Chewin’ the Fat.

*A Scottish educational qualification (originally the Higher School Leaving Certificate) and roughly equivalent to A-levels, but undertaken over one year.) Nitpick:- page 84 refers to Calum excelling at O-level technical drawing. O-levels were not a Scottish examination. Some Scottish schools did enter their pupils for them but I doubt that happened in Greenock. Nor will it. The Scottish equivalent, O-grades, were superseded in the 1980s by Standard Grades, which in their turn have this year been replaced by National 3, 4 and 5 qualifications. O-levels were replaced in England by GCSEs from 1988.

Intrusion by Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 2012, 387p.

 The Intrusion cover

It’s not often you read a Science Fiction novel partly set on the Isle of Lewis but if you’ve been seeking one out you need look no further. Congratulations to MacLeod for his courage in that regard. One of Intrusion’s characters, Hugh Morrison, was brought up there but MacLeod also manages to work in to his narrative an oblique reference to the early 2000s child abuse scandal on Lewis. The Lewis setting is not tacked on, though, Lewis is integral to the plot but the action also features London.

Sometime in the near future, solar cells in the Sahara have rendered conventional power stations and other renewables such as windfarms obsolete. A Warm War is in train with Russia as the main “enemy” and anti-technology terrorists known as NAXAL hold sway over parts of Asia. In the UK, anti-terrorism legislation has led to greater police powers (including an acceptance of torture) and an aggressive safety culture means women are gradually being eased from the workplace and wear monitor rings to ensure they are not exposed to harmful agents – tobacco, alcohol, drugs – especially while they are pregnant. A pill known as the “Fix” corrects possibly harmful mutations in the womb and provides a type of immunisation against minor ailments. While religious exemptions from taking the Fix are allowed, distinctions are made between “new” kids, “faith” kids and “nature” kids.

Hugh and his wife Hope have had one nature kid and she is pregnant again. A lot of the plot centres round the efforts of those in authority to persuade her to take the Fix and her unwillingness to do so. In the meantime interactions between tachyons and rhodopsin may provide an explanation for the “second sight” not uncommon in Lewis.

Given the ongoing encroachment on civil liberties in the UK, the pusillanimity of politicians towards safeguards (well satirised here in the words of a Labour MP,) the police state MacLeod gives us is not too far-fetched. Second sight as tachyon-mediated visions from another world is a bit more problematic, though.

The title works on several levels. There is the intrusion of the state into private life (and of the police into public life,) there is the possible intrusion of tachyons into the real world and Hugh’s experiences of another world (“the summer beyond the winter”) impinging on Lewis. In this respect the Fix is nothing but a Mcguffin, though it too is an intrusion; into the natural process. Yes, it has a plot function but the timescale seems wrong for such a powerful technology to have been so thoroughly assimilated by the society MacLeod depicts – which is not too far from our own.

Everything rolls along merrily, MacLeod’s characters are entirely believable and the story’s internal logic holds water. Intrusion is not perhaps quite up there with MacLeod’s best but it’s still well written, entertaining and thought-provoking.

BSFA Awards

I’ve now read four of the five short-listed novels – the first time I’ve ever managed such a feat before the vote. While it is so much easier to find books in these internet days I did make a conscious effort this time. My reviews of these five are in the previous post plus here, here and here. It’s probably the one I’ve missed (Zoo City by Lauren Beukes) that will win now.

The nominations for Best Art are to my mind profoundly uninspiring except perhaps the spaceship by Andy Bigwood on the cover of Conflicts.

As to the short stories: the BSFA booklet has been devoured and here are my thoughts.

Flying In The Face Of God by Nina Allan.

The Kushnev drain is a(n unexplained) treatment that allows deep space expeditions to be undertaken more easily. Viewpoint character Anita, a film-maker whose mother was murdered in an anti-space-exploration terrorist attack when she was months old, is in love with Rachel, a recipient of the Kushnev drain who is about to set off into space. Rachel’s boyfriend, Serge, has moved on already.

The Science Fiction in this story is peripheral, being only the mentions of the Kushnev drain and space travel. Apart from that it’s … well, nothing much really.

At the level of the writing, an apparent change of viewpoint character in paragraph 1 (and 2) brought me to a shuddering stop in paragraph 3. Throughout, there is a high degree of info dumping. Tenses within the flashbacks are not precise enough making keeping track of things difficult. Anita’s grandmother features for no good plot reason that I could see. None of the characters displays much psychological depth.

As a result I found this story to be a bit incoherent. And nothing happens.

The Shipmaker by Aliette De Bodard

In a Chinese dominated future culture the shipmaker of the title is in charge of designing a spaceship – on principles that appear to relate to or derive from feng shui. The ship is to be piloted by a flesh and electronic hybrid Mind, gestated in the womb of a volunteer, the mechanics of which process are not laid out. The birth-mother turns up early and throws the delicately balanced design process into confusion. The culture is sketched efficiently and the characters’ problems are believable enough.

This is a proper story with forward movement and motivated characters but with an ending that is perhaps too glib.

The Things by Peter Watts

This story is told from the point of view of an alien, who has always heretofore been able to meld with and assimilate to other lifeforms, and is capable of warding off entropy. The creature’s offshoots have survived a crash and are trying to come to communion with the human members of an Antarctic expedition who come to realise its presence and resist it. Its gradual understanding of the singular nature of human existence, that we have brains – which it regards as a form of cancer – that we die; is well handled.

Again, this is a story, but due to its nature the humans it depicts are never more than names. The alien, however, is as real as you could wish. The last sentence is a little intense, though, not to say unsavoury.

Arrhythmia by Neil Williamson

In a Britain which is reminiscent of the early- to mid-20th century with concomitant working practices and social attitudes yet still has room for Top Of The Pops, Steve whiles away his days at the factory and yearns for the company of Sandra, who is sometimes assigned to work alongside him.

The factory runs to the tune of the Governor. Literally. The assembly line moves in time with piped music – as if Music While You Work was a control mechanism. In fact so suffused with music is this story it even begins with an anacrusis.

The key event is when Sandra gives Steve a copy of a vinyl single by the singer Arrythmia, whose iconoclastic attitude encourages rebelliousness.

As I almost said in my review of the anthology it came from, Music For Another World, this story could perhaps have been titled 1984: The Musical. Arrythmia doesn’t suffer too much by that comparison.

The Restoration Game by Ken Macleod

Orbit, 2010. 303 p.

MacLeod’s last novel had, as well as the usual SF, elements of the police procedural to it, not to mention a setting which featured Edinburgh heavily. In this book he mixes SF with the espionage thriller and makes an excellent fist of the spy novel aspect. Is he thinking of moving away from the genre?

In the one time Caucasian Autonomous Region of Krassnia, one of those strange enclaves of the former Soviet Union where ethnic strife both within it and with its neighbours was just waiting to break out when that state disintegrated, there is a mountain which hides a secret. A secret which when filmed in 1952 put the fear of God into Stalin and Beria. Krassnia has for centuries been divided between its habitual rulers the Vrai and the underling Krassnars. The mountain is said to hold the secret of the red-haired Vrai and bad things happen to ordinary Krassnars who venture there. (I pondered the significance of vrai being the French word for true but couldn’t work out if there was any.)

Despite her being a US citizen currently living in Edinburgh – again a welcome setting for part of a MacLeod novel – Luciane Stone’s family has been tangled up in Krassnian affairs (the word is apposite) for four generations; indeed she was born and schooled there. In her job with an Edinburgh computer game company she has incorporated almost all the Krassnian folklore that she learned at her mother’s knee into their latest project “Dark Britannia.” Cue much speculation regarding simulations and simulacra. Another game project in hand is of a timeline where the Spartacus revolt in ancient Rome was not crushed. As a consequence Rome did not fall in the fifth century and the industrial revolution occurred much earlier than in Lucy’s world. The Romans reach Mars.

When the call comes from her mother to produce a version of “Dark Britannia” specifically aimed at the Krassnian market Lucy becomes embroiled in all the shenanigans you might expect in a spy/thriller story. As this scenario demands, Lucy does of course ascend the mountain, where she encounters a strangeness illuminating the nature of reality.

While fizzing with speculation, The Restoration Game blends the SF and spy elements a little awkwardly, with the more down to earth sequences fully realised and the fantastical standing somewhat aloof from them – at times appearing almost as an add-on. Nevertheless MacLeod’s prose enables the book to speed by. It is a page turner.

My reservations about the central tenet of the main SF element constitute a spoiler. Do not read on if you wish to avoid this. Get yourself the book instead. It’s a very entertaining read.

SPOILER
SPOILER

SPOILER

The SF element of The Restoration Game turns on the Earth of Lucy Stone, our Earth, being a simulation, run by Synthetic Psyches in a universe in which the Romans did reach Mars.

While this is an acceptable speculation and characters in such a simulation would “feel” (or experience, if you will) in a similar way to “real” people and would not be able to tell the difference – unless subject to the sort of evidence that The Restoration Game postulates – it is dangerously close to being “all a dream.” In dreams, of course, logic and internal consistency are not necessarily strong suits and a story set within one can be rendered meaningless.

Now, MacLeod’s simulated world definitely does not lack logic nor internal consistency but there is a wider sense that if the characters we read about are merely (merely?) simulations why should we care about them?

This is a philosophical conundrum for any reader of fiction, however, since all fictional characters are, by definition, not real. Even those based on historical or actual people are not real in the sense that a living breathing human is.

In this regard, though, to make characters within a work of fiction actual simulations is possibly a step too far. Even if we inhabit the same simulation ourselves.

This Year’s BSFA Awards

This year’s BSFA Awards shortlist has been published.

Five novels have made it this year (I’ve read one) and four short stories (ditto,) five non-fiction pieces and six art works.

I didn’t make the list with Osmotic Pressure (I doubt I was nominated by anyone) but
I’ll look forward to reading the shorts I’ve missed so far: I assume the BSFA will send them out in a booklet as in the past two years. They’ll all likely be available on the web soon I should think – if not already.

Small Nuclear War? No Problem!

The launch for Ken Macleod’s new novel (not actually on sale till July) went well.

As well as Ken, Charles Stross and Andrew J Wilson gave readings and there was then a question and answer session for the three panellists.

The subjects discussed were what do you think might go wrong next (ie what disasters/problems might be coming soon) and, interestingly, what will go right?

The demise of newspapers and the subsequent loss of democratic oversight of government, enhanced rubbishing of science and the possibility of a new virus all entered the first category.

Reasons to be cheerful?

War kills fewer people as a percentage of the world population now than in any previous century and affluence is likely to increase. (Abject poverty is at its lowest percentage ever.)

This was the section where Ken raised the biggest laugh of the night when he opined (I paraphrase) that, all things considered, in the bigger scheme of things a few small nuclear wars wouldn’t be all that much to be bothered about.

Book Launch Event

The launch of Ken MacLeod’s new novel The Restoration Game will take place on Wed 17/3/10 at The Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh. I’m hoping to make it but may arrive late as the event is starting at 7 pm.

This has apparently been booked for some time but due to a shift in its schedule the book itself will not be published till July, I think; but Ken will be reading from it on the night. A few other Edinburgh SF luminaries will also appear.

Scottish Science Fiction: An Update

Someone got to my recent blog post by searching in google for scottish science fiction. The Wikipedia page under that heading is woefully inadequate while providing some historical perspective but I found this interesting link to an address by Alan McGillivray to The Association For Scottish Literary Studies which he gave in 2000. He naturally focuses on Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod as the only Scottish SF writers around at that time (though my A Son Of The Rock had appeared by then) and looks forward to the growth of Scottish SF which has, in fact, now occurred.

While reading it I realised that I had unaccountably forgotten to mention in my post the novel But n Ben A-Go-Go by Matthew Fitt. This SF novel is singular (and spectacular) in that it is written entirely in Scots. That certainly beat my attempt at Scottish SF into a cocked hat as I wrote/write in English. My apologies to Matthew for the omission.

Consider Phlebas: Towards A Scottish Science Fiction

Throughout the 1950s, the early 1960s, through the late 60s efflorescence of the New Wave and into the 1970s and 80s a stream of English authors came to prominence in the SF field and had novels published in Britain. To my mind there was a clear distinction in the type of books all these authors were producing compared to those emanating from across the Atlantic and that certain characteristics distinguished the work emanating from either of these publication areas. While Bob Shaw was a notable Northern Irish proponent of the form during this period and Christopher Evans flew the flag for Wales from 1980 something kept nagging at me as I felt the compulsion to begin writing. Where, in all of this, were the Scottish writers of SF? And would Scottish authors produce a different kind of SF again?

Until Iain M Banks’€™s Consider Phlebas, 1987, contemporary Science Fiction by a Scottish author was so scarce as to be invisible. It sometimes seemed that none was being published. As far as Scottish contribution to the field went in this period only Chris Boyce, who was joint winner of a Sunday Times SF competition and released a couple of SF novels on the back of that achievement, Angus McAllister, who produced the misunderstood The Krugg Syndrome and the excellent but not SF The Canongate Strangler plus the much underrated Graham Dunstan Martin offered any profile at all but none of them could be described as prominent. And their works tended to be overlooked by the wider SF world.

There was, certainly, the success of Alasdair Gray’€™s Lanark in 1981 but that novel was more firmly in the Scottish tradition of fantasy and/or the supernatural rather than SF (cf David Lindsay’€™s A Voyage To Arcturus, 1920) and was in any case so much of a tour de force that it hardly seemed possible to emulate it; or even touch its foothills.

David Pringle noted the dearth of Scottish SF writers in his introduction to the anthology Nova Scotia where he argued that the seeming absence of Scottish SF authors was effectively an illusion. They were being published, only not in the UK. They (or their parents) had all emigrated to America. Though he has since partly resiled on that argument, it does of course invite the question. Why did this not happen to English SF writers?

It was in this relatively unpromising scenario that I conceived the utterly bizarre notion of writing not just Science Fiction but Scottish Science Fiction and in particular started to construct an SF novel that could only have been written by a Scot. Other novels may have been set in Scotland or displayed Scottish sensibilities but as far as I know I’€™m the only person who deliberately set out to write a novel of Scottish SF.

It could of course simply be that there was so little SF from Scotland being published because hardly anyone Scottish was writing SF or submitting it to publishers. But there were undoubtedly aspirants; to which this lack of role models might have been an off-putting factor. I myself was dubious about submitting to English publishers as they might not be wholly in tune with SF written from a Scottish perspective. I also thought Scottish publishers, apparently absorbed with urban grittiness, would look on it askance. I may have been completely wrong in these assumptions but I think them understandable given the circumstances. There is still no Scottish publisher of speculative fiction.

With Iain M Banks and Consider Phlebas the game changed. Suddenly there was a high profile Scottish SF writer; suddenly the barrier was not so daunting. And Phlebas was Space Opera, the sort of thing I was used to reading in American SF, albeit Banks had a take on it far removed from right wing puffery of the sort most Americans produced. Phlebas was also distant from most English SF – a significant proportion of which was seemingly fixated with either J G Ballard or Michael Moorcock or else communing with nature, and in general seemed reluctant to cleave the paper light years. Moreover, Banks sold SF books by the bucketload.

There was, though, the caveat that he had been published in the mainstream first and was something of a succès de scandale. (Or hype -€“ they can both work.)

[There is, by the way, an argument to be had that all of Banks’€™s fiction could be classified as genre: whether the genre be SF, thriller, in the Scottish sentimental tradition, or even all three at once. It is also arguable that Banks made Space Opera viable once more for any British SF writer. Stephen Baxter’€™s, Peter Hamilton’s and Alastair Reynolds’s novel debuts post-date 1987.]

As luck would have it the inestimable David Garnett soon began to make encouraging noises about the short stories I was sending him, hoping to get into, at first Zenith, and then New Worlds.

I finally fully clicked with him when I sent The Face Of The Waters, whose manuscript he red-penned everywhere. By doing that, though, he nevertheless turned me into a writer overnight and the much longer rewrite was immeasurably improved. (He didn’€™t need to sound quite so surprised that I’d made a good job of it, though.)

That one was straightforward SF which could have been written by anyone. Next, though, he accepted This Is The Road (even if he asked me to change its title rather than use the one I had chosen) which was thematically Scottish. I also managed to sneak Closing Time into the pages of the David Pringle edited Interzone -€“ after the most grudging acceptance letter I’€™ve ever had. That one was set in Glasgow though the location was not germane to the plot. The idea was to alternate Scottish SF stories with ones not so specific but that soon petered out.

The novel I had embarked on was of course A Son Of The Rock and it was David Garnett who put me in touch with Orbit. On the basis of the first half of it they showed interest.

Six months on, at the first Glasgow Worldcon,* 1995, Ken MacLeod’€™s Star Fraction appeared. Another Scottish SF writer. More Space Opera with a non right wing slant. A month or so later I finally finished A Son Of The Rock, sent it off and crossed my fingers. It was published eighteen months afterwards.

I think I succeeded in my aim. The Northern Irish author Ian McDonald (whose first novel Desolation Road appeared in 1988) in any case blurbed it as “€œa rara avis, a truly Scottish SF novel”€ and there is a sense in which A Son Of The Rock was actually a State Of Scotland novel disguised as SF.

Unfortunately the editor who accepted it (a man who, while English, bears the impeccably Scottish sounding name of Colin Murray) moved on and his successor wasn’t so sympathetic to my next effort – even if Who Changes Not isn’€™t Scottish SF in the same uncompromising way. It is only Scottish obliquely.

So; is there now a distinctive beast that can be described as Scottish Science Fiction? With the recent emergence of a wheen of Scottish writers in the speculative field there may at last be a critical mass which allows a judgement.

Banks’€™s Culture novels can be seen as set in a socialist utopia. Ken MacLeod has explicitly explored left wing perspectives in his SF and, moreover, used Scotland as a setting. Hal Duncan has encompassed – even transcended – all the genres of the fantastic in the two volumes of The Book Of All Hours, Alan Campbell constructed a dark fantastical nightmare of a world in The Deepgate Codex books. Gary Gibson says he writes fiction pure and simple and admits of no national characteristics to his work – but it is Space Opera – while Mike Cobley is no Scot Nat (even if The Seeds Of Earth does have “€œScots in Spa-a-a-ce.”)

My answer?

Probably not, even though putative practitioners are more numerous now – especially if we include fantasy. For these are separate writers doing their separate things. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether they have over-arching themes or are in any way comparable.

PS. Curiously, on the Fantastic Fiction website, Stephen Baxter, Peter Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds are flagged as British – as are Bob Shaw, Ian McDonald, Christopher Evans and Mike Cobley – while all the other Scottish authors I’ve mentioned are labelled “€œScotland.”€ I don’€™t know what this information is trying to tell us.

*For anyone who hasn’t met the term, Science Fiction Conventions are known colloquially as Cons. There are loads of these every year, most pretty small and some quite specialised. The Worldcon is the most important, an annual SF convention with attendees from all over the globe. It’€™s usually held in the US but has been in Britain thrice (Glasgow 2, Brighton 1) and once in Japan, to my knowledge. The big annual British SF convention is known as Eastercon because it takes place over the Easter weekend.

Edited to add (6/62014):- Margaret Elphinstone should be added to the list above of Scottish authors of SF. Her first SF book The Incomer appeared from the Womens’ Press in 1987, the same year as Consider Phlebas, but I missed out on it then. My review is here.
See also my Scottish SF update.

The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 2009, 368p

With The Night Sessions Ken MacLeod strides firmly onto SF detective territory and adds his own unique twist. Following on from The Execution Channel (to which it is not a sequel) it is the second of Ken Macleod’s forays into near (well, nearish) future thrillerdom and features acts of terrorism and the police efforts to solve them. It could also be firmly described as Scottish SF as it is set almost wholly in Scotland.

[Aside: Even since before I started this blog I have been pondering writing a piece about Scottish SF. With this book as a spur I may inflict it on you soon.]

There are excursions into New Zealand, though, while solettas – which reduce global warming by directly screening the sun – and a couple of space elevators provide Science Fictional colouring. Another important element is the inclusion of robots/AIs. The police have robot assistants called lekis which, while large, seem to be spider-like, or tentacular at any rate, as well as a collection of smaller bug-like machinery which can infiltrate small places and provide points of view linked in to the police communications system. Other robots are revealed to be useful in construction in space.

The events of the book take part in a world where wars over oil (aka the Faith Wars) have defeated the forces of organised religion – at Armageddon/Megiddo no less – and made these organisations marginal at best, if not quite underground operations. The first terrorist victim is a Catholic priest, the second, in an echo of Covenanting times, an Episcopalian Bishop of St Andrews.

The plot concerns the getting of religion by a group of robots, given the word by a Presbyterian in New Zealand whose sermons – a neat play on the word sessions by MacLeod here – are relayed in real time to members of a sect (of the Third Covenant) in Linlithgow.

As is to be expected given the subject matter, MacLeod’s knowledge of biblical texts is to the fore. There are also some SF in-jokes which the casual reader (if there is such a beast) may miss.

The Night Sessions is a fine blend of the SF and thriller genres. The writing flows, the clues are placed where they are needed and (spoiler alert?) the denouement depends on one of the SF elements. MacLeod could obviously handle a straight detective novel with no difficulty but doing so would perhaps not have allowed him to explore the theme of religion in quite the same way.

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