Ken MacLeod – intelligent, political science fiction with great characters and storylines

I like science fiction that is thoughtful.  Action is good, I like that as well, but I like things that make me think, look at things in a new light, and re-evaluate what I know or believe.

One of my favorite authors (I have a lot of favorite authors) is a Scottish fellow by the name of Ken MacLeod, a former zoologist, computer programmer, political activist, and bio-mechanical researcher.  He keeps an active blog called The Early Days of a Better Nation about his interests, thoughts, and observations that makes for interesting reading, though, to be fair, I don’t follow it with any regularity.

My introduction to him was via his Fall Revolution series, a set of four books that do not need to be, indeed probably should not be, read in order.

The Fall Revolution series

I began with The Cassini Division and was instantly hooked, reading the book in one evening and completing the rest of the series within the week.

The Fall Revolution series focuses on the events leading up to a Singularity, the point where humans can upload their minds into machines, running faster and replicating themselves, creating new and more powerful intelligences in a run-away burst of hyperinflation of the mind.  The story arc follows the political events taking place at this time and what the future looks like after the singularity.  Society fragments and a faction escapes to another planet into the future (distance equals time) through wormhole.  On New Mars their society embraces the uploaded and AI minds and adopts an anarchic-capitalistic social and political system.  Back in the Solar System the fast-folk, the uploaded and AI minds, have been fought to a stand-still and confined to Jupiter, where they are guarded by The Cassini Division lest they escape.  The Solar System has adopted an anarchic-communist model.

The early books deal with the characters laying the groundwork for these competing political ideologies and why society splits.  The later books about what happens when characters from these societies re-encounter one another.  The Sky Road takes place in the interlude when Earth is recovering from the wars triggered by the split.

These books explore what it means to be human, the potential of technology, and the limits of ideology.  Political discussion between the characters is a main theme, though not at the expense of great action and a beautifully described setting.  A friend of mine once commented that real people didn’t have the sorts of political discussions the main characters do and I had to laugh, because I and many of my friend do have nearly exactly the types of discussions the characters have.

These books fall into the space-opera and future-history sub-genres for anyone who is keeping track.

Another fantastic series by Ken MacLeod is the Engines of Light series, which should be read in order.

Engines of Light series

The Engines of Light takes place in a 100 light year region of space on the other side of the galaxy where humans and hominids from all of human history and pre-history have been sent by annoyed god-like intelligences, along with jumbled ecosystems from all of Earth’s history.  Intelligent dinosaurs have most of the technology and starships are piloted by giant squid who are the only creatures with the neural architecture necessary to navigate interstellar space.

The last group of humans, a joint US/Russian cosmonaut team, has a star-drive, but cannot use it and one of the cosmonaut families has devoted its energies to solving the navigational problem.  The story revolves around what happens when an ancient, static, star-faring culture goes through a massive shift in the balance of power accompanied by the introduction of new political philosophies.

This series has some of the most interesting aliens I’ve encountered.

Throughout Ken MacLeod’s work his characters are well constructed.  They act and talk like real people, are driven by lofty ideals and petty jealousies, they are perceptive, idealistic, pragmatic, and oblivious in realistic proportions.  They are fun characters to read about and the situations they find themselves in are unusual, but flow naturally in the stories.

As an ex-girlfriend of mine said of Ken MacLeod when I read this series to her, “He writes with authority.”

His other books are good as well, in particular Newton’s Wake and Learning the World.  His books have gotten difficult to find the US bookstores, but they are easily available from online retailers.