ONE 7 • Tomorrow Lies in Ambush: a conversation with Ken MacLeod

Science fiction is a time machine for the imagination, with a remarkable way of transporting us from the here-and-now to the distant past or the far-flung future. The problem is, according to author Neil Gaiman, “You can tell the date of an old science fiction novel by every word on the page. Nothing dates harder and faster and more strangely than the future.”

This is an issue that award-winning writer Ken MacLeod has had to deal with since he published the first of his eleven SF novels in 1995.

“In one sense, Gaiman is absolutely right,” he says. “As SF critic John Clute has pointed out, every work of SF has a ‘real date’ (often earlier than the date of publication) which the alert reader can identify. It’s not so much the details of future technology and science, but the assumptions and implied concerns — the elements the writer assumed were not going to change or were going to remain relevant.”

He cites the work of ground-breaking English author John Brunner as an example of how some of yesterday’s visions of the future can be marooned by real events: “In his big social problem SF novels in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Brunner took for granted that militant Black nationalism would be very significant in early twenty-first-century America and Britain. He also assumed that large-scale public works — rapid transportation systems and so on — would be a feature of our time. Same with relaxed sexual mores, drug use, etc. — it’s all a more or less linear projection of the Sixties.”

MacLeod can see the same effect in his own earlier novels: “The Star Fraction comes out of the concerns of the early 1990s, and Cosmonaut Keep from those of the late 1990s. You can pinpoint the events at the back of them rather precisely: the break-up of Yugoslavia in one case, the war on Serbia (and the brief scary confrontation of NATO with Russian troops) in the other. In the first book, the post-Soviet space has slid down into ‘technologically advanced barbarism’; in the later one, Russia has pulled itself together, installed Socialism 2.0, and gone on to conquer Europe.”

However, as he highlights, these novels still work as stories, and their broad perspective of a turbulent twenty-first century is still very much on track. Having said that, MacLeod agrees with fellow SF writer Alastair Reynolds that some works, particularly hard SF set in the far future, can largely escape these echoes of the present, and that they should be written with that intention: “As Al has pointed out, a society of 2600 will be far more different from ours than ours is from Renaissance Italy.”

MacLeod’s latest novel, The Night Sessions, is set in 2037. In the aftermath of the Faith Wars — a disastrous conflict also known as the Oil Wars — Western society has rejected religion and its nations have become secular states. Scotland has become a stable, independent, multicultural nation, but when a priest is murdered in the capital, old wounds are opened, and the police fear that new kinds of damage will threaten the stability of Scotland and the wider world. Things are further complicated because intelligent, self-aware robots are now part of society — and some of them have adopted religion.

His previous novel, The Execution Channel, bravely tackled the damaging consequences of the so-called War on Terror, and The Night Sessions can be seen as a thematic sequel. Both books are set in the not-too-distant future, unlike the space operas that preceded them. Did MacLeod want a change of pace, or has he decided that the present world situation demands an examination of where we might be heading in the near future?

“A bit of both — I’d done as much as I wanted to do for the moment in New Space Opera, and had another decade’s worth of accumulated anger at the way things are going. But that’s a personal decision: it may be that what we really need right now is more work set in the far future.”

He’s not joking: “Part of the problem of the present is a lack of vision about the long-term future of humanity that could give us something to work towards, even if the reality turns out to be as different as the actual Space Age did to that imagined in the SF of the Forties.”

MacLeod doesn’t believe that SF is about prophecy, but rather, that it is concerned with thought experiments — preferably sensational ones: “As Brian Aldiss says, its best stories start not so much by asking ‘What if…?’ but ‘My God! What if…?’ It’s only ‘prediction’ in the sense used by scientists when they say a hypothesis ‘predicts’ this or that, not in the sense that astrologers ‘predict’ (ha-ha!) the future.” He pinpoints the inspiration for The Night Sessions as his own examination of the impulses that made him sympathetic to Richard Dawkins and to other New Atheists, such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

“For me, the defining Islamist atrocity wasn’t 9/11, traumatic though that was: it was Beslan. I found myself watching the news with fists clenched and teeth gritted. I wanted to see those who brought us Beslan smashed, and I didn’t care who by. Now that surprised me because I’m an Old Atheist, if you like, or more specifically, a historical materialist, and I thought I did understand the root causes, to use a much-maligned phrase, of religious terrorism. I really had to think hard — as I did after 9/11 — to come out of it with my humanism intact. I’m not a natural humanist, it’s something I have to work at and try to live up to.

“So I could get into the skin of people who attribute all our troubles to religion, or at least to the influence of religion on politics, and could easily imagine this becoming a popular mood after a military disaster for the US and UK in the current imperialist war. I imagined the defeated armies coming home and looking at the religious lobbies that had sent them into Armageddon with a nasty glint in their eyes.”
While he was writing The Night Sessions, MacLeod read a lot of atheist literature: “There’s a lot out there much better than Dawkins — such as David Ramsay Steele’s Atheism Explained, or Julian Baggini’s Atheism: A Very Short Introduction — and also a lot of fundamentalist and other conservative Christian online material. The conclusion that I came to is that, however much one can criticizes some of the superficialities of Dawkins (on religion, not on biology), he has done the humanist cause a great service. Because he’s right: the fundamentalists need to be faced down, and atheists and rationalists of whatever kind need to stand up and be counted. What we’re up against in creationism and everything associated with it is a deeply obscurantist and sinister movement that wants to destroy not just the Enlightenment, but the achievements of the Middle Ages.”

Does he believe that rationalism can triumph over superstition?

“I remember discussing the Islamic Revolution in Iran with Robin Blackburn (the historian, author and former editor of New Left Review). He said something like: ‘We’ll win in the end. In three hundred years, everybody will be an atheist. But in the meantime…’”

At his appearance at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, MacLeod wryly mentioned that Ian Rankin had asked him when he was going to write some “real” books. With its police procedural plot and Edinburgh setting, The Night Sessions enters Rankin’s territory, albeit that MacLeod’s hero is almost the complete opposite of Inspector Rebus. I ask him if he thinks that Rankin should write some SF.

“I hope not,” he says, “because I’m sure he could do it really well! SF and crime writing have a lot in common, actually.”

The central idea of The Night Sessions is that robots, many of whom gained self-awareness in the Faith Wars, are now part of society. MacLeod has previously stated that the one common thread in his books is that they are about the clash between human beings and post-human artificial intelligence. Since he is a trained scientist who has worked in computer programming, I ask him if he thinks that a functioning artificial intelligence could be defined by its ability to stop itself crashing — and if intelligent robots could be able to make human beings “crash”?

“When Iain Banks was writing the first drafts of his Culture novels, which postulate AIs, the friends who were most sceptical of this were those who were working with computers: ‘Computers can’t argue,’ one of them said. Of course, in those days computers were built by IBM and filled a room. These days you get more computing power on your phone, and they do argue. I’m not as sceptical as I once was about AI, but no less suspicious. The emergence of an AI that isn’t hardwired to being friendly to humans is a major catastrophic risk — it could indeed make human beings ‘crash’. Think about it: even something as smart as us, thinking a thousand times faster, could run rings around us …”

In the meantime, he’s working on his next SF novel, provisionally titled The Restoration Game, which is set in the present day: “It’s about computer games, heroic legends, and the restoration of capitalism. It’s also about some of the matters we’ve just discussed, not to mention all the fun of finding you were part of a CIA plot to smuggle subversive books into Eastern Europe in the 1980s. As some well-meaning people keep advising us: write what you know!”